Recognition of new Syrian opposition poses peculiar question for Turkey

Recognition of new Syrian opposition poses peculiar question for Turkey

Newly elected Syrian National Council (SNC) Head George Sabra (R) speaks during the General Assembly of the Syrian National Council in Doha Nov. 11, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

November 14, 2012, Wednesday/ 19:34:00

Turkey, the main backer of the newly formed Syrian Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, is not committed to recognizing it as the sole legitimate representative of Syria just yet, partly out of concerns over the diplomatic implications of such a move at a time when Ankara hands the Syrian regime protest notes over what it says are violations of its border, according to experts.

An official speaking on the condition of anonymity said on Wednesday that it is too early to recognize the coalition which Syrian opposition groups agreed to unite around during a meeting in Doha on Sunday because the new leadership was formed very recently.

The official said, however, that Turkey is set to call on the international community to recognize the new coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the upcoming meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” scheduled to be held in Morocco in the first week of December.

“Turkey expects the international community to recognize the new opposition coalition as the only legitimate representative in the meeting to take place in Morocco,” said the official.

Turkey has no dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but recognition of the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of Syria could still pose some uncommon problems for Ankara, which has protested to the Syrian government several times after conflict in the neighboring country spilled over into Turkish territory, causing casualties.

The government handed the Syrian government a formal protest note after a mortar round fired from Syria landed in the Turkish town of Akçakale, killing five civilians there. Most recently, Ankara delivered a similar protest note to the Syrian government after Syrian warplanes and helicopters dropped bombs on Syrian opposition targets just meters away from the border, causing injuries and panic in the town of Ceylanpınar.

If Turkey recognizes the Syrian coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, then it would not be possible for Turkey to issue diplomatic notes to the Syrian regime, Sinan Ülgen, the chairman of the İstanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), told Today's Zaman.

“The reason why Ankara did not recognize the new coalition is that, if it does, it would no longer have the right to issue a diplomatic note to the Syrian regime in case of any violation of its border. Therefore, it would tie Turkey's hands” while dealing with such critical situations on the border, said Ülgen.

Özdem Sanberk, a former diplomat and esteemed foreign policy commentator who now heads the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), agreed, saying that this particular question is a critical one.

Turkish caution is similar to that of the US and stands in contrast to France and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which recognized the new coalition as the sole legitimate representative of Syria.

“Given that France recognized the new coalition, it is impossible for France to maintain its diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime,” Sanberk said. “But there is a point here, which is that the Syrian regime still has a representative at the UN, and it is still recognized by the UN,” he said, adding that France has acted too hastily in recognizing the new coalition. “It is very natural that Turkey now acts cautiously.”

The Syrian regime will still be considered a legitimate actor according to international law even if Turkey recognizes the new coalition, said another expert, Veysel Ayhan of İzzet Baysal University.

Turkey has welcomed the new body and said the international community no longer has an excuse to withhold backing for the anti-Assad opposition. Speaking at a panel discussion in Rome on Monday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called the meeting in Doha an effort to bring the different representatives of Syrian society together as he urged the international community to support this entity that now better represents the Syrian people.

After more than a week of meetings in Doha under intense international pressure, Syrian opposition groups signed an initial agreement on Sunday to form a new coalition force that will include representatives from all groups in Syria struggling to topple President Assad.

Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib was elected as the president of the Syrian Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, and George Sabra was selected president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), one of the major organizations now under the new coalition.

“The friends of Syria … should support this agreement. … There is no longer any excuse. All those who support the rightful struggle of the Syrian people should declare clear support for this agreement and be more active,” said Davutoğlu.

Noting that al-Khatib is a Muslim and Sabra a Christian, Davutoğlu underlined that the Syrian revolution is supported by all segments of Syrian society. Davutoğlu reiterated that claims of divisions within the opposition have been put to rest and that the new coalition represents the whole of Syria.

Unlike its European partners, France became the first European power to recognize Syria's new opposition coalition as the sole representative of its people on Tuesday, saying it would look into arming opposition forces against Assad once they form a government. French President François Hollande's stance, observers say, is reminiscent of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, on Libya last year, when France led a NATO action that eventually helped topple the Libyan leader.

The French move was announced by Hollande, who used his first news conference since taking office six months ago to formally recognize the group.

“I announce here that France recognizes the national Syrian coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and, therefore, as the future provisional government of democratic Syria,” Hollande said.

Arab League and EU foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Tuesday welcomed the formation of the coalition as an important step forward, although their communiqué showed they had not reached a unanimous decision to recognize it as Syria's sole authority.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said more needed to be done to rally support inside the country before London would recognize the coalition as the rightful government of Syria.

The US also recognized the leadership body announced in Qatar on Sunday as a legitimate representative, but stopped short of describing it as the sole representative of Syria, saying the group must first demonstrate its ability to represent Syrians inside the country.

“We look forward to supporting the national coalition as it charts a course for the end of Assad's bloody rule and marks the start, we believe, of a peaceful just and democratic future for the people of Syria,” said US State Department spokesman Mark Toner in Washington on Tuesday.

"There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They [international community] used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test," Suhair al-Atassi, a vice president in the new coalition, said in an interview with Reuters.

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