Syria hits back at Turkish rebuke as pre-visit tension escalates

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will visit Damascus on Tuesday to deliver a strong message against the crackdown on protesters.

August 07, 2011, Sunday/ 17:19:00

In a harsh response to Turkey's decision to send Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to Syria to convey “a decisive message” from Turkey, Syria rebuffed the decision, with Syrian Presidential Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban saying Syria was ready to deliver an “even more decisive one,” signaling the refusal of Syrian officials to comply with reforms despite Turkey's warnings that the country is “at the end of its patience.”

"If Davutoğlu is to deliver a decisive message to Syria, he will hear § more decisive reply regarding the Turkish stance which failed to condemn the brutal killing and crimes committed by the armed terrorist groups against the civilians, military and police members until now,” Shaaban was quoted as saying by the Syrian state-run Sana news agency on Sunday.

Davutoğlu's visit was announced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Saturday at an iftar event in İstanbul, which drew a harsh response from Syria. The prime minister indicated the end of Turkey's patience with the Syrian administration due to their constant refusal to initiate democratic reforms.

The diplomatic row between the countries on Sunday is further evidence that relations between the two countries have cooled since Turkey's call for the peaceful initiation of democratic reforms was met with Syria's retaliation in blood.

The prime minister said Syria's reform process was not an issue of foreign affairs but rather an internal one, given Turkey's 850-kilometer-long border with the country and the deeply rooted historical and cultural ties between the nations.

In reaction to these words, Shaaban said if the Turkish government does not consider the issue of Syria a foreign matter due to the historic and cultural relations, Syria is more than willing to have consultation among friends. Shaaban, however, noted that Syria “categorically rejects all regional or international attempts of interference in its internal affairs.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Turkish officials said Davutoğlu's visit was intended to be “a serious warning” to Syria, since the Turkish advice has not found its reflection in the Syrian administration so far. The officials also acknowledged a steep rise in Turkey's criticism of Assad's administration since Turkey's the initial advice for the implementation of reforms in Syria, voiced as early as January, when the first sparks of the Arab Spring hinted at the events to come in the region.

In light of the disappointment Turkey experienced when its calls for reforms were taken for granted by its political and trading partner Syria, Gökhan Bacık, an academic at the international relations department of Zirve University, said Turkey's plans fell through “when it was not able to use its clout on Syria to coerce the country into reforms.” Bacık, speaking to Today's Zaman on Sunday, interpreted the recent backfiring of the advice a sign that indicates that “all gray zones of reconciliation are used up” and that Turkey was going to tell Syria “one last time to implement the reforms in exchange for Turkish support in various fields in return.” However, the academic concluded that it would be “quite a shock if Syria heeds Turkey's calls,” in belief that the country will continue to cling to its system that has produced Assad and will continue to produce many others like him if unchallenged.

Having called upon the Syrian government many times to stop the bloodshed and prevent the situation from snowballing into a massacre, Erdoğan said that Turkey's position on the matter now needed to be “clearly stated” and the ensuing process would be shaped according to “the response and the implementation of pledges,” which does not seem like a promising prospect in the light of the Syrian presidential advisor's remarks on the possible outcome of the visit.

“We cannot sit back and watch the events unfold in Syria. On the contrary, we need to hear the voices of the Syrians; we definitely must respond by doing whatever we are required to do,” Erdoğan said in a first-time message that Turkey was ready to gear up for further involvement to stop the crackdown in Syria.

“Turkey's last warning to Assad means the country is still leaving room for Assad to implement the necessary reforms before all hell breaks loose,” said Veysel Ayhan, an academic at İzzet Abant Baysal University and a Middle East expert at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), as he commented on the possible implications of Davutoğlu's Syria visit to Today's Zaman on Sunday. Touching on Syria's need to convince Turkey of Assad's sincerity for reforms to keep the country on its side, Ayhan also pointed to an increased pressure from Western countries on Turkey to impose sanctions on the country. “Turkey is not the UK, nor another European country far away from Syria, it has a lot at stake if Syria falls into further disarray,” said Ayhan, highlighting that Turkey cannot afford to be brash in its moves against Syria when it has so much to consider. “But the country will move with the rest of the world in its reaction against Syria and refrain from marring its reputation in the global arena,” the academic commented.

Turkish officials have refrained from calling for foreign involvement in the Syrian unrest on expectations that Syrian leader Assad would stabilize the country by implementing democratic reforms, but the bloody assault on Hama on July 31 has hardened the tone of criticism against the leader. Davutoğlu and his ministry recently condemned the attacks with an official statement that questioned the sincerity of Assad in resolving the issue in peace. Shortly after, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç slammed Assad for the assault he called “nothing short of an atrocity,” as he called for an immediate ceasefire and the settlement of the issues.

Meanwhile, a pursuing attack targeting Deir el-Zour came on Sunday in a fashion that matched the previous Hama incident, which agonized Turkish officials and drew their harsh criticism. The assault on the oil-center city in the east did not come as a surprise with earlier reports by The Associated Press (AP) and other agencies announcing the deployment of tanks at entrances to the city that forced more than half a million, a quarter of the city's population, to flee in fear of a second Hama incident.

Turkey and Syria have remained strong allies in the region with occasional ups and downs in their relationship, mainly due to Syria's support in early 1990s of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with which Turkish security forces have been clashing since the organization took up arms in 1984 and started a bloody campaign that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. A recent National Intelligence Organization (MİT) report presented to Turkish government and military officials acknowledged a trend for Syria to revert back to its position with the PKK before 1998, when the country ceased to shelter the outlawed PKK and sent its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, out of the country, preparing the grounds for his capture in Kenya the next year.

The MİT report stated that Syria rounded up PKK members in crackdowns, starting in 2008, but none of the 264 militants it detained so far have been returned to Turkey. Out of the 3,800 PKK militants currently based at Kandil Mountain, at least 1,500 of them are of Syrian origin, the report stated. In light of the Syrian oppression targeting Kurds, at an estimated population of almost half a million, who are denied Syrian citizenship and have to live without any sort of an identification document, the report dubbed the lack of Kurdish militant attacks on Syrian soil highly surprising, speculating that Syria has remained allied to the militants.

Since the early 2000s, relations had improved between the countries to the point of mutually waiving visa requirements, but Syrian unrest, which escalated in March, dispersed the warm atmosphere. The loss of civilian lives during the Hama attack on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan provoked Turkey's harsh reaction, seriously deteriorating the already strained ties between the two countries. Turkey currently hosts almost 7,500 Syrian refugees, who fled the violence in their hometowns in Syria.

When the tension hit its peak in May, more than 16,000 Syrians living close to the Turkish border had fled their homes to seek shelter and protection in the southern province of Hatay, leaving their livestock and houses behind.

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