At the end of the Friends of Syria group meeting on Feb. 24 in Tunisia, where 70 countries convened, including the United States, Turkey, the EU and those from the Arab League, Turkey was chosen to host a second meeting. A third meeting will be held in France, the countries also decided.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Turkish diplomat told Sunday’s Zaman last week that Turkey, as a reliable actor initiating and backing measures to end the bloodshed in its southern neighbor, does not necessarily see international conferences discussing the Syrian issue as a platform to discuss military measures. “Rather, Turkey perceives such conferences as alternative platforms to keep international awareness of the Syrian crisis alive as the UN Security Council has failed to take action due to a lack of consensus,” the diplomat claimed. On Feb. 4, Russia and China, backers of the Syrian regime, wielded a veto over a UN Security Council resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, drawing the ire of the international community.
Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), claimed in an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman that the international community has been avoiding military measures like arming the Syrian opposition or sending troops in order to not fuel a civil war in the country.
“Turkey and Western governments do not consider such military measures feasible in the near future,” Orhan asserted, considering that the Assad-led Baathist regime still has control over the army and even supporters among some segments of Syrian society.
While the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is hoping a buffer zone will be established to provide a safe haven across the Syrian border for dissidents, claimed that the Tunis conference fell short of the hopes of the Syrian people, a Saudi Arabian delegation left the conference before it had concluded, insisting that “focusing on humanitarian aid is inadequate” in solving the Syrian issue.
At the beginning of the conference in Tunisia, Prince Saud al-Faisal said arming the rebels would be “an excellent idea, because they [the Syrian opposition] have to protect themselves.” During the conference, Qatari and Tunisian representatives called for an Arab peacekeeping force to ensure stability in the country.
Reflecting on what other concrete measures might be taken at the İstanbul conference, Orhan said establishing aid corridors to alleviate the humanitarian crisis resulting from the continuous shelling by the Syrian army is highly likely to be discussed. “The participating countries may also talk about more serious sanctions in order to further isolate the Syrian regime,” Orhan added.
As French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé announced during the Tunisia meeting, the 27 EU member countries, which met in Brussels on Feb. 27, froze the assets of the Syrian Central Bank and seven Syrian government officials. They also banned Syrian cargo planes from entering EU airspace and the purchase of precious metals such as gold from the country.
More concrete steps needed
Vefahan Ocak, chief advisor to the secretary-general for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), agreed with Orhan, saying the international community could only help by taking more concrete steps on humanitarian aid to Syria. “We [the OIC] are also engaging in talks with Syrian authorities to allow humanitarian aid to flow into Syria to provide relief to the Syrian people experiencing this tragedy,” Ocak explained.
However, mentioning that even an extension of humanitarian aid to the country was only feasible with the permission of the Syrian regime, Ocak claimed that a change to the current situation in Syria hinged on the Syrian regime’s willingness to change. “The Syrian regime still has credibility in the eyes of some international powers, especially Russia. That encourages Assad to continue the violent crackdown on the opposition,” he elaborated.
The international media last week reported that Russia, which is both an economic and military giant, continues to provide serious arms to support the Syrian regime.
Mustafa Kibaroğlu, head of the international relations department at İstanbul’s Okan University and an expert on arms control issues, also said that real pressure on Assad is only possible by persuading Russia to come to terms with the international community and withdraw its support from the Syrian regime.
Analysts say China, another veto-wielding power, would follow suit to the Russian decision in the Security Council and, should Russia be convinced, it would withdraw its support for the Syrian regime.
Kibaroğlu said the Friends of Syria meetings lacked the ability to impose military measures, one of the reasons being that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, and the Security Council is the only international platform with the legal power to affirm such measures. The other reason is that Russia has enough political and economic leverage to stand against countries that want to remove the Assad regime by force.
Russia, the world’s biggest energy exporter and on which Europe is highly dependent for natural gas, likes to use that position as political leverage.
“Such kinds of international forums will not go beyond well-intended international initiatives unless there are decisive efforts to include Russia in the process against the Syrian regime. What the İstanbul conference could do to be effective is to try to come up with a political solution, guaranteeing Russia that a democratic transition in Syria [and a military measure against the country to stop the bloodshed] would not be contrary to its interests in Syria,” Kibaroğlu pointed out.
Russia pursues own interests
Kibaroğlu said Russia’s support of the Assad regime is not unconditional, claiming that Russia is trying to keep its positive ties with Syria and secure its influence in the Middle East by supporting Assad. “If these interests are secured, Russia will stop being obstinate and come in line with the international community’s decision to pressure Assad [to step down],” he explained.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is strongly expected to become the next president on Sunday, in a written statement he posted online earlier this week maintained the standard Russian position on Syria, ruling out any “preconditions or foreign interference” and recommending “due respect for the country’s sovereignty.”
Russia has a long-standing relation with the Assad family-led regime in Syria, a country that provides Russia with a naval base in Tartus, meaning the country has a bigger say in the eastern Mediterranean compared to the US and its allies. The Syrian regime was also a political ally of Russia during the Soviet era. Russia’s relations with Syria became even stronger after 2005, when Russia signed an agreement with Syria to sell missile defense systems.