Mohammad al-Abdallah, a Syrian dissident and human rights activist who now lives in the United States after being in exile in Lebanon, said that Turkey has a major role to play in the region as both an influential regional power and Syria’s neighbor. “Turkey made clear that it cannot interfere unilaterally. And there is the Arab League decision, which is very important. But we still need a UN resolution against Syria. Turkey can apply some pressure in that regard,” he said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada last weekend answering questions for Sunday’s Zaman.
He was referring to the Arab League’s ultimatum to Syria to sign a protocol allowing monitors into the country or face sanctions over its crackdown on protests. Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo on Thursday said unless Syria agreed to let the monitors in to assess the progress of an Arab League plan to end eight months of bloodshed, officials would consider imposing sanctions on Saturday. The sanctions include halting flights and suspending transactions with the central bank.
Under a Nov. 2 Arab League initiative, Syria agreed to withdraw troops from urban centers, release political prisoners, start a dialogue with the opposition and allow monitors and international media into the country. Since then hundreds of people -- civilians, security forces and army deserters -- have been killed as the unrest that the United Nations says has killed 3,500 people since March continued unabated.
Turkish President Abdullah Gül, on an official visit to Britain, said this week that change is inevitable in Syria, but said this should come from within Syria, not through external intervention. Earlier, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke of the fate of defeated dictators from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to Muammar Gaddafi and bluntly told Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
According to Abdallah, who heads the youth committee of the SNC which was founded in October by Syrian dissidents, Turkey’s stance has been assuring for Syrians.
“In general, Turkey has been great,” he said. “Syrians first believed that Erdoğan could convince Assad to stop the crackdown, but Assad was lying to him. Erdoğan, who felt betrayed by Assad, has a clear position. Once Turkey started accepting families, Assad started attacking Turkey.”
Approximately 8,200 Syrian refugees live in five camps in Turkey’s Hatay province, along the southern Mediterranean coast toward Syria. Turkish officials put the number of refugees registered at nearly 20,000 a few months ago, but that figure fell as some of them have found lodging with families in area villages, which share kinship ties with villages in Syria’s Idlib province.
“Turkey’s position is not to topple the regime, not to topple the revolution; it wants to stop the bloodshed. It’s a great point,” Abdallah said. “What scared us at the beginning was Turkey’s position toward Libya, opposing NATO intervention in Libya, but later Turkey joined the international community.”
Abdallah also said that he is aware of the difficulty of taking political action, but Turkey can play an active role in passing a strong UN Security Council resolution against Syria, and particularly work with emerging countries, Brazil, South Africa and India, currently on the Security Council, since sanctions against Damascus through the council failed because of a veto in September by Russia and China.
“The European Union, the United States and Turkey can go to the UN general assembly and weaken Chinese and Russian positions there. That would put more pressure on Syria and facilitate a UN Security Council resolution,” he said.
Another SNC member, Radwan Ziadeh, who heads the foreign relations office of the SNC, had told Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey could enforce a no-fly zone along with a safe zone at the Turkish border, and without that the Assad regime would continue the killings. He had also said that Turkey should think of the possibility of doing it with the support of NATO, the United States and the EU if Russia insists on using its veto in the UNSC. Turkey, a regional heavyweight with the military strength to mount a cross-border operation, currently does not provide any security equipment to Syria and also prohibits any transshipment of military goods through Turkish air space and ground space. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said at a press conference in İstanbul on Friday that he could attend a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Sunday at which possible sanctions could be discussed and said Turkey was considering taking further steps against Damascus in conjuction with the bloc.
‘Assad’s days are numbered’
US Sen. John McCain, who was at the Halifax forum last weekend, said that a year from now Assad will not be in power like Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya -- rulers for decades.
Abdallah said he agrees.
“I and the Syrian people agree that Assad is not going to be in power next year this time. If the Syrian people stop now, we are going to see another few decades of regime crackdown on people. The activists will be forced to leave the country at some point.”
He is also hopeful that the Syrian people will not resort to violence. “The Assad regime force people to be armed, but we won’t do it,” he said.
Abdallah, who defines himself as a liberal Sunni Muslim, has been involved with the SNC in the United States. He said that the Syrian regime managed to scare the Alawite community in relation to the revolution, but now the SNC involves all ethnic and religious groups in Syria -- as opposed to the belief that it is all Muslim Brotherhood -- and more Christians have started to support the revolution.
He said that the Syrian community in the United States has become more organized, more helpful to the revolution and more generous after decades of autocratic regime in Syria.
“Before the revolution, they were afraid to be active dissidents because if they did, their families back in Syria would be harassed by the regime,” he said.
Now a program officer at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), Abdallah previously worked for the Human Rights Watch (HRW) from Beirut secretly for one-a-half years. His family has a tradition of being dissident.
“After four years of prison, my father was released during the revolution, and my brother was released after five years in prison -- in May and June. My brother joined the protestors after being released,” he said. “My family has a long history of fighting against the government for human rights. My father never asked me to stop, he encouraged me.