Ankara at crossroads on the Syrian crisis by Mehmet Kalyoncu*
Syrians waiting to be transferred to a refugee camp near the Turkish village of Guveçci in Hatay province. (PHOTO AP, Burhan Özbilici)
At this point, there is no need to remind anyone what started the Arab masses’ uprisings against dictators imposed on them.
The same sentiment could be manipulated by the very imposers in order to instigate a so-called “Kurdish Spring” against Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. It is again all too clear that compared to the others, Turkey would be the most affected by such social engineering. Ankara’s current approach to the Syrian crisis is far from diminishing, never mind eliminating, the potential dangers emanating from the prolonged conflict in this country.
At the initial stages of the Syrian crisis most Turkish intellectuals and columnists supported, or at least felt obliged to support, Ankara’s coercive stance toward the Assad government. Lately, the number of those who are openly against any sort of Turkish intervention, military or non-military, unilaterally or as a part of an international coalition, in Syria has increased. Yet, there are still those who are advocating a military intervention in order to expel Bashar al-Assad from power. The leading figures of this camp even argue that Turkey should intervene with or without international support, and if not, at least arm the Syrian opposition. Besides this group, there are others who seem to be trying to understand what is going on in Syria and what Ankara is trying to do and who are quite hesitant to criticize, or even question, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) leaders’ wisdom on Syria. After all, they may be excused for being so, because they are readily ridiculed by the leading conservative figures for allegedly underestimating Turkey’s power and the historical role bestowed upon it to reshape the international system.
Within this group are also those who feel obliged to support the government’s draconian approach and imply it would be unpatriotic not to do so. It has become a matter of national honor. This line of argument could make sense if Turkey was a sultanate or a totalitarian regime based on an ideology. However, in democracies, it is a common practice for the governments to give up on policies that do not work or are counterproductive. It is also not uncommon for the leaders to admit that they are not infallible.
Given the gravity of the current circumstances, there is no merit in belaboring the people who got Turkey into this dire situation, at least for the time being. Currently, Turkey is faced with an imminent national security threat caused by the developments in Syria, which are largely outside its control, including some which have happened as a result of the policies which Ankara has chosen to pursue in response to these developments. At this point, Ankara is at a crossroads, and the road it takes will have deep and lasting political, socioeconomic and security implications for Turkey.
First road: ‘Responsibility
The “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, which the UN unanimously adopted at the 2005 World Summit and which has become a norm in the international community, is one of the oft-cited concepts within the policy circles in Ankara as a possible means to legitimize a military intervention in Syria (to stop civilian losses). In the aftermath of the Rwanda and Bosnia genocides, the adoption of the R2P has assigned the international community the role of preventing or halting four mass atrocities (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity) in case the state or states involved are either unable to stop them or on the contrary are the very perpetrators of these crimes against their own people.
The R2P stipulates: (a) “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from these four mass atrocities,” including taking appropriate and necessary measures to prevent such crimes from taking place at the first place; and (b) “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” It further stipulates that the international community must be prepared to “take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
Although the humanitarian tragedy in Syria is widespread, it is hard to officially verify that the Syrian government is perpetrating one or more of these mass atrocities. It is particularly difficult to do so when there is an armed opposition actively fighting the armed forces, let alone an opposition which third parties seem eager to arm and bankroll. In fact, those proposing to arm the opposition are not only abetting these third parties, but also in a way undermining the prospect of utilizing the R2P. A final problem with the R2P option is that it requires a Security Council authorization for military intervention. The Council, which has not adopted a resolution condemning the Syrian authorities, would hardly authorize such an intervention at this point.
Second road: Creating a buffer zone in Syria
Cognizant of the deadlock within the Security Council, some within Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s close circle have suggested that if the council does not authorize an intervention in Syria, then the two-thirds majority vote of the UN General Assembly can suffice to secure international legitimacy for a possible Turkish intervention in Syria in the form of creating a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The rationale for this buffer zone would be to create a safe haven for the Syrian civilians victimized by the ongoing crisis, and also to prevent a further influx of the refugees into Turkey. It goes without saying that the creation and maintenance of such a buffer zone would require the presence of Turkish soldiers on Syrian soil, which would in turn bring about the possibility of an armed conflict between Turkish and Syrian armed forces. Again, the idea of circumventing the Security Council through the General Assembly would be problematic. Even if two-thirds of the UN member states support a Turkish intervention, it would also mean that a third, including some of the Security Council members, are opposed to, or at least don’t support, a Turkish buffer zone in Syria. Such a result would also widen the international opposition to Turkey’s approach to the situation. Of course, if there are as many as two-thirds of the UN member states supporting the idea of creating a buffer zone in Syria, why is it Turkey that must do it?
Another reason that is voiced to legitimize such a buffer zone is Syria’s alleged violation of Turkey’s border. On April 9 Syrian government forces reportedly fired across the Turkish border, killing one and injuring two others in a refugee camp in Turkey. Consequently, Prime Minister Erdoğan raised the possibility of invoking Article 5 of the NATO Charter, and calling on this organization to protect Turkey’s borders. Syrian armed forces may or may not have fired across the Turkish border, and Turkey has every right to call upon the NATO to protect its borders, if they are violated. However, it is somewhat perplexing to see that some leaders in Ankara are so sure about who fired those shots from the Syrian side. It is especially so given that they do not find it strange to readily blame Israel’s Mossad for the terrorist acts seemingly carried out solely by the PKK in southeastern Turkey. Even if it is the Syrian armed forces that fired, does it necessarily mean that they have done so under the instructions of the Syrian government? Not that they cannot have, or would not have. But, the question is whether or not there is enough evidence to verify that the Syrian government has intentionally violated Turkey’s sovereign borders. When it comes to finding actions that may count as an act of aggression, or violation of its sovereign borders, the Syrian authorities may not fall short either.
Third road: Embracing refugees, supporting Annan plan and engaging
Finally, although the government forces have continued shelling of the opposition-held towns in Syria, and hence the death toll is still rising at a somewhat lower pace, a tenuous cease-fire in line with UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan seems to be holding for the time being. As such, the prospects for either utilizing the R2P or establishing a buffer zone are dim. Moreover, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2042 on April 14, stipulating that the UN will send an advance team of 30 unarmed military personnel to observe the cease-fire.
The resolution also stipulates the expansion of this monitoring team after another resolution to be adopted into a 250-member UN supervision mission. Yet the ongoing violence, though at a much slower pace, renders the cease-fire, and hence the implementation of the six-point plan, quite fragile. In fact, given the difficulty of ascertaining who is firing at whom in Syria, it takes only one person shooting at the Syrian armed forces and/or the opposition forces, to ruin the whole cease-fire. In any case, fully supporting the implementation of Annan’s plan is still the only reasonable thing to do for the international community, including Turkey.
In addition, while continuing to provide for the Syrian refugees in Turkey, Ankara should seek ways and means to re-engage with Damascus in a constructive manner. The latter needs partners to help rehabilitate Syrian society after the prolonged crisis and to start a political process that would lead to a more pluralistic and democratic Syria. Turkey is the most viable, if not the only, regional partner to help Syria do this. Understandably, it may seem somewhat difficult for the Turkish leaders to re-engage with the Syrian government after so illogically rushing to call upon President Assad to leave from the very beginning. Yet, for regional peace and stability, it is necessary that Syria smoothly and swiftly transform itself into a democracy where all factions of the Syrian society feel secure. Plus, considering the alternatives as to who might have hosted and supported the Syrian opposition, Damascus should recognize Turkey’s involvement in that regard as an asset, and should be thankful, if in a somewhat ironic manner.
There will always be the detractors in Ankara who see things as black and white, who advocate for a military intervention in Syria to oust President Assad and who would cheer such an action as an indication of Turkey’s emergence in the region as a rule maker. They would call all the rest who do not favor their policies pro-Assad or pro-Iranian and would blame them for not having compassion for the civilians dying in Syria. Yet, the AK Party government should leave history behind, engage with the Syrian government and help the Syrian opposition groups fully integrate into the new political structure in this country. In the end, if Turkey wants to become a game-maker and an order-enforcer in its region, it should keep its friends close, and Syria and Iran even closer. As Ankara stands at the crossroads with respect to the Syrian crisis today, it should take the third road. It may seem somewhat burdensome, but it is certainly safer and more rewarding.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.