The beginning of the end in Syria: a period of diplomatic, military and economic sanctions

October 17, 2011, Monday/ 13:18:00

Realization of a regime change is a matter of time in Syria from now on. Starting from the current period, it is not a matter of question for the global and regional actors wishing the Syrian public in revolt and the Assad administration to fall to change their stance.

Therefore, it seems that a regime change is likely to occur in Syria. The main problem is how long this process will take and what kind of means will be used in realizing the regime change. Will the change be peaceful or will both Syria and the region be moving towards a long-lasting chaos? Will the Libyan scenario be holding or will, as in the case of Iraq during the Saddam era, a military option be applicable after a process to last more than ten years in which there will be isolation, embargo and sanctions?

Ambassador of the USA to Damascus Robert Ford, in an interview he made with a journal, stated that “One of the things that we said to the Syrian opposition is that they should not expect us fighting in Syria as we did Libya. The main problem from the perspective of the opposition is how they will gain support within the regime and to find a way through which they will not be looking outside in resolving the problem. This is a problem of Syria and the solution should come from Syria.”[1] These statements show partially the role of the US policy that will play a determining role for the future of Syria. The first result derived from the statements is that the US excludes herself from a military option at least in which she will be a part of. However, as it is known, without an armed struggle, it is impossible to overthrow an authoritarian regime that demonstrates an ultimate will in killing. The armed struggle is expected from within Syria. A crack in regime, but especially in the army, its spread to the opposition camp and an armed struggle against the regime are expected. It is possible to find the missing parts from the arguments of Ford with regard to the reflections of the US policy over Syria in the statements of Ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone: “We encourage democracy in each part of the world. About this matter, we consider Turkey as an inspiration. Each country should find its own path. Syria is different from Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Everyone and each society should find their own ways to democracy. If these societies and states choose this path, we all will support them.”[2] As it can be understood here, in case the internal dynamics move towards a change, the US will use all resources to weaken the Assad administration and empower the opposition. At this point, the trumps held by the USA could be categorized as the following: “to mobilize the international community and organizations against Syria, to apply unilateral economic and diplomatic sanctions, to leave Syria isolated in international arena and the region by directing their allies in Europe and the Middle East towards sanctioning and isolationist policies, to create a regime alternative by supporting the opposition financially and politically”.

Amongst the abovementioned trumps, the most critical country appears to be Turkey. For the economic and political sanctions to generate results, the support from Turkey appears to be of great importance. Moreover, in the endeavours of empowering the opposition, Turkey again plays a significant role. Therefore, the USA tries to execute her Syrian policy by coordinating with Turkey. For this matter, the phone meeting made on June 21, 2011 between the US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a critical importance. After this meeting, it is possible to posit that both countries reached a consensus on the policy to be applied towards Syria, and in the upcoming stages, the pressure on Syria has been increased with a full coordination between the countries. Just one week after this meeting, Ambassador of the United States of America to Ankara Francis Ricciardone declared that “they are together with Turkey on the matter of Syria”. [3] Again just one week after the meeting, Counsellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Turkey Feridun Sinirlioglu had a meeting with Counsellor of the Department of State of the United States of America Bill Burns. In the meeting, apart from the bilateral relations, the matter of Syria was discussed. [4]

Interesting arguments were raised in the news about two points overlooked in the phone meeting between Obama and Erdogan. According to the first one, “in the phone meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and US President Obama, they talked about the announcement of a no-fly-zone in Syria as in Libya”. [5] In another news, “it was stated that after the phone meeting, both sides reached an agreement on resolving the problem with a US-Turkey cooperation. According to that, the economic sanctions on Syria will be enhanced by the USA and Europe, and Turkey, on the other hand, will play a role in military options. “[6]

In fact, looking at the process of sanctions applied on Syria, it is seen that both sides try to corner the Assad administration through the mentioned ways.

The first of the precautions whose sanctioning power increase incrementally was realized in late April 2011. The USA froze the properties of the people close to Bashar al-Assad and gave the travel ban to these people. [7] The first remarkable thing here is that Bashar al-Assad was not included in the sanctions. At the beginning of the process, Assad was given some time and other figures that appeared as the actual responsible ones for violence at the very core were punished. Apart from giving some time to Assad, it can be said that one was attempting to create cracks in the regime. The USA was followed by the European Union (EU) starting from early May. The EU implemented a weapon-embargo on Syria owing to the violence against the protestors, and moreover, banned the travel of 13 people that are Syrian officials or related with the regime to any 27 member states and froze their properties. The EU, afterwards, enhanced these sanctions in a way to incorporate Bashar al-Assad and his 9 officials. US President Obama took the first harsh stance against Assad on May 18. Obama gave a message to Assad that “either lead the change or get out of the way”. Later, he started his endeavours in bringing the case to the United Nations (UN). The UK and France presented a draft resolution that considered the condemnation of Syria due to the application of violence in the country to the UN Security Council and then, in the further steps, a decision on condemnation was taken. The US President and US Secretary of State gave the harshest statement in July in which they declared that “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the USA. The economic sanctions went on with applications on the Commercial Bank of Syria that is owned by Rami Maluf who is the Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and the richest person in the country and GSM company Syriatel. The economic sanctions in a short time period started to incorporate the energy sector in Syria. In August US Secretary of State Clinton called the international petroleum companies for halting their operations in Syria. Following Obama’s calling Assad for “leaving the administration”, the UK, France, Portugal and Germany presented a new draft resolution that considers a new sanction on Syria to the UN Security Council. Excluded from the sanctions in the first stage, Bashar al-Assad got included into the sanctions starting from late August. Afterwards, at the end of September, the European Union member states stated that they banned European companies to make new investments in petroleum industry. It is quite important for revealing the actual impact of the sanction that Syria exports 150 thousand barrels of crude oil most of which is exported to the EU member states. Finally, the draft resolution that was considering new precautions to be taken against Syria prepared by France, UK, Germany and Portugal was rejected as a result of Russian and Chinese veto in the (UN) Security Council.

Parallel to the economic and diplomatic sanctions implemented by the USA and EU, one had a period with Turkish having a different role on the matter. Two dimensions appear remarkable with respect to the role of Turkey. The first one is the allowance of Syrian opposition’s organizing in Turkish soils. The second dimension is the direct or indirect enhancement of military sanctions. Even though the USA excludes a military option, she makes the analysis that without that a change will not be possible. The expectation is an armed resistance to be demonstrated in Syria. At this point, the role of Turkey is of great importance. The expectations from Turkey are possible in the following way: to help the Syrian opposition so as to improve themselves politically as well as militarily, to help them create safety zones, to provide military protection in these zones, to create an opportunity for the opposition to get powerful in a possible buffer zone to be formed, and to provide military force for protection in this zone, to try to affect the internal dynamics of Syria in favour of the opposition by using the Turkish military deterrence directly and to prevent the armament endeavours of the Syrian administration from Iran.

The first signs of military precautions to be taken by Turkey against the Syrian administration were seen in the period after the revolts started. Turkey reported that the courier plane landed in Diyarbakir on March 16 were carrying weapons which would violate the embargo applied on Iran by the UN and Turkey reported this incident to the UN Security Council on March 29. On August 4, 2011, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung stated that a convoy carrying the weapons that Iran wanted to send to Syria was stopped in Turkey. After that, in September, Prime Minister Erdogan stated that “I cannot believe anymore” during his visit to Egypt and declared that he banned the use of airspace of Turkey to the courier planes carrying military equipment to Syria. Prime Minister, by stating that they started to implement an embargo on the weapons delivery on land after air and sea, declared “if there is an initiative like that we stop and seize it”.

However, the most important point with regard to the military precautions is the idea of creating a buffer or no-fly zone. The formation of a buffer zone will be legitimate when the incidents in Syria reach such a level that they will threaten the security of Turkey. And this can be possible when the number of the Syrian guests reach such a high number after the military operations conducted towards the Jisr al-Shoghour. Turkey is known to be in preparation for that scenario. Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu indicated “in case Syria moves in to an internal chaos and in case this will create a risk for Turkey, certain precautions will be taken. To the question of whether these precautions will incorporate soldiers, he said “When there is security problem for us, of course it will. When Saddam increased pressure on the Kurdish public in Iraq, in one night 500 thousand people were on the border of Turkey. Of course, when this problem turns into one related with security, all precautions including military are taken. The number reached to 15 thousand once, and now it is around 7. 600. Say tomorrow, the number increases again, we do not know. Therefore, when an internal struggle in Syria becomes a security threat to Turkey, of course one will take precautions”. [8] In another news published in another newspaper, one stated that “if Turkey establishes a buffer zone on the border, the opposition is ready to turn this region into Syria’s Benghazi”.

Another step with regard to military precautions is the armament of the military opposition figures and their provision of working for the safety zones. On this matter, some news appears on media. The interview made by the British newspaper Independent with Colonel Riyad Assad who fled from the Syrian army and sought shelter in Turkey is quite noteworthy. Stated that he was protected by Turkish officials, Riyad Assad declared that he was the general of the “Free Syrian Army” established by the soldiers who left the Syrian army. In the interview, Colonel posited that “they were organized within Syria”. “Up to now, within 200 thousand-person Syrian army, about 10-15 thousand soldiers changed their sides” he said and added that “the morale in the Syrian army is very low and soon more soldiers will change their sides”. He also argued that one was planning guerrilla-like attacks and assassinations so as to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. [10] The other news with regard to the armament of the opposition mention that for the revolts in Syria that slowly turn into an armed resistance, the weapons are smuggled from Turkey. [11] These allegations were also made by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. [12]

About the military precautions, the last step is the commencement of the “Lightning-2011” military exercise of the Turkish Armed Forces in Hatay. The realization of the exercise between 5-13 October in Hatay was made parallel to Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to tent cities in which the Syrian guests were hosted [13], which could be evaluated as the demonstration of military deterrence of Turkey towards Syria.

In the international community, a common view has been formed on that Assad administration lost its legitimacy and it needs to leave power. The problem is how Syria will be managing this owing to the difficulty created by the distinctive conditions occurred in Syria. Without a military option, the impossibility of the fall of regime is very evident. However, no actor wants to be involved in this adventure about which they have no idea on future. The conclusion to be derived from the abovementioned statements is that one tries to pursue a two-point strategy about Syria. At one point, there are the political, diplomatic and economic sanctions targeted to weaken the regime in a long term. With the enhancement of the economic sanctions, one will make financing the security infrastructure difficult and increase the discomfort in the public. With the intensification of political and diplomatic pressures, an isolated and marginalised Syria that cannot make relations with anyone will appear, and this will weaken the belief on the sustainability of the regime in security units, which eventually will lead to detachments. And at this point, the military dimension appears as the second point. With an increase of detachments from within the regime, the current civil resistance will turn into armed resistance movements. In other words, the military dimension of the matter will be left to the Syrians. However, the armed opposition, like in the example of Benghazi in Libya, will need a secured area. The political strengthening of the opposition will be maintained in parallel to that. And the position of Turkey in that case is very important because of the fact that she is the neighbour of Syria with the longest border and the Syrian public trusts her very much.

Footnotes

[1] Syria Confession from the USA, Hürriyet, September 28, 2011, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/18851685.asp. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[2] Ricciardone: We are together with Turkey on the matter of Syria, Hürriyet, June 30, 2011, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/printnews.aspx?DocID=18147287. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[3] Ricciardone: We are together with Turkey on the matter of Syria, Hürriyet, June 30, 2011, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/printnews.aspx?DocID=18147287. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[4] Sinirlioğlu ABD'li müsteşar Burns ile görüştü, Hürriyet, July 7 2011, http://www.hurriyet.de/haberler/dunya/947145/sinirlioglu-abdli-mustesar-burns-ile-gorustu. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[5] Obama ve Erdoğan, Suriye'de uçuşa yasak bölgeyi görüşmüş, Euractiv News Website, June 22, 2011, http://www.euractiv.com.tr/politika-000110/article/obama-ve-erdogan-suriyede-ucusa-yasak-bolgeyi-gorusmus-019208. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[6] ABD-Türkiye anlaştı mı, Hürriyet, June 26, 2011, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/printnews.aspx?DocID=18111229. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[7] ABD, Esad'ın yakınlarının mal varlığını dondurdu, Yeni Şafak, April 29, 2011. http://yenisafak.com.tr/Dunya/?i=316683&t=29.04.2011. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[8] Davutoğlu: Suriye'ye karşı tabii ki tedbir alınır, Zaman, October 7, 2011. http://www.zaman.com.tr/haber.do?haberno=1187945. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[9] Tampon bölge Suriye’nin Bingazi’si olabilir, Hürriyet, June 19, 2011. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/18063641.asp. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[10] Esad rejimini Türkiye'den devirecek, Hürriyet, October 10, 2011, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/planet/18943302.asp. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[11] Silahlar Türkiye'den kaçırıldı iddiası, Hürriyet, September 29, 2011, http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/printnews.aspx?DocID=18848099. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[12] Utku Çakırözer, “Esad konuştu”, Cumhuriyet, October 7, 2011. http://cumhuriyet.com.tr/?hn=283256. (Date of Access: October 11, 2011)

[13]  This visit has been postponed for a certain period of time owing to the death of mother of Prime Minister Erdogan.

»» Oytun Orhan, ORSAM Middle East Specialist, Abant Izzet Baysal University, Phd Candidate in the Department of International Relations

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