Turkey to ratchet up pressure on Syrian regime after Houla massacre

People gather at a mass burial for the victims killed during an artillery barrage from Assad’s forces in the Syrian city of Houla. (PHOTO: Reuters)

June 03, 2012, Sunday/ 12:33:00

The fact that Turkey has signaled it will impose further sanctions on Syria this week following the massacre of 108 civilians in the Syrian town of Houla, nearly half of them children, and the discovery of more bodies in other parts of the country allegedly killed by pro-regime forces may be a harbinger of a new course in Turkish foreign policy towards ratcheting up the pressure on embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

 Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that new unspecified sanctions by his government might be imposed against Syria in the coming days, saying that the world “cannot remain silent in the face of such a situation.” He also predicted that Russia and China will not be able to stand with the Assad regime. “I believe that those countries which pretend to be siding with Assad will find it impossible to be with him after all,” he added. Deputy prime minister and economic czar Ali Babacan also said there are many tools in both diplomacy that have not yet been used, confirming Erdoğan’s message to put further pressure on the Syrian regime.

Ankara joined the coordinated protest by Western countries this week in expelling Syrian diplomats in the wake of the Houla massacre. In a written statement the Foreign Ministry said it had ordered the Syrian chargé d’affaires and other diplomats at the Syrian Embassy in Ankara to leave the country within 72 hours. The Syrian Consulate General in İstanbul will remain open for consular services only. Turkey’s consulate general in Aleppo will remain open, staffed with minimum personnel. Turkey shut down its embassy in Damascus in March and withdrew the ambassador in protest of the escalating violence in the country, which was blamed on pro-Assad forces.

While Turkey is preparing for a second wave of sanctions on the Syrian regime, it will also push for stronger international action to stop the bloodshed and escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria. Among the steps Ankara is expected to take is to renew Turkey’s demand to put a deadline on the joint UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point truce plan. It will also ask for a stronger team of UN monitors to observe the truce. Babacan said this week that Turkey originally proposed that there should be at least 3,000 observers for Syria and was disappointed to see that the UN Security Council authorized only 230 monitors in its first dispatch. Ankara believes the stronger UN presence will thwart the regime’s continuing use of lethal force against the opposition, thereby providing breathing room for the dissidents to organize and mount stronger opposition against the heavy-handed regime.

Turkey already announced a nine-item list of sanctions targeting the Syrian administration in December. It has suspended the Turkish-Syrian High Level Strategic Cooperation Council until a legitimate administration, which is at peace with its people, takes office in Syria. Turkey also introduced travel bans on several officials from the core Syrian leadership who have been accused of using violence and illegal practices against the Syrian people as well as freezing their assets in Turkey. Similar measures were launched against some leading businessmen who are known to be firm supporters of the Syrian regime.

In addition to the suspension of the sale and provision of all kinds of arms and military equipment to the Syrian military, Turkey has also decided to block any transfer of arms and military equipment from third countries to Syria through Turkish territory, airspace and territorial waters in compliance with international law. Turkey’s sanctions also include the suspension of ties with the Central Bank of Syria, freezing the financial assets of the Syrian government in Turkey, ceasing to extend loans to the Syrian government, halting transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria with the exception of transactions currently in progress and announcing the suspension of a Turkish Eximbank loan agreement for the financing of infrastructure projects in Syria.

The sanctions take a huge toll

The sanctions have already taken a huge toll on the trade volume between the two countries. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), the trade volume in the first quarter of 2012 took a dive with a 63 percent drop from $528 million last year to $194 million this year. The overall trade in 2011 was almost $2 billion, a drop of 13 percent from the same level of 2010, which was $2.3 billion, heavily favoring Turkey. In the first quarter, Turkish exports to Syria dropped 57 percent while imports from Syria fell by 83 percent.

Sedat Laçiner, former president of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) think tank and current president of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, believes Turkey can take further economic measures against Syria by suspending the trade activity of private companies doing business with Syria. “Turkey can take both fiscal and trade measures to exert further pressure on the regime as the Syrian economy has no deep economic infrastructure. It relies on the outside for the supply of goods and commodities. It will collapse eventually,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. Laçiner stressed, however, that for the economic and fiscal measures to bear fruit, coordinated international action is necessary. “I think Turkey should lobby hard at the UN to get Security Council members to agree on joint action by convincing Russia to get on board,” he added.

In the meantime, Turkey is also working on an intensified effort to make the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) more visible in the world, providing further clout and legitimacy to this alternative platform aiming to topple the minority Alawite regime in Syria and replace it with a more diverse and representative government. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met the SNC members last Sunday in İstanbul to prepare the groundwork for a more coordinated action against the Assad regime. The SNC executive bureau will convene a 50-member general secretariat in the Turkish capital on June 11 and 12 to elect a replacement for Burhan Ghalioun, who resigned his post in early May.

Seeing that international consensus has yet to emerge on military intervention into Syria, Turkey has not openly called for one. But there are increasing signs that Turkey may move to actively support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the fight against government forces by invoking the “right to defend and protect civilians” principle sanctioned under the UN Charter. The deadly offensive of the Assad government against the opposition and the mounting civilian death toll may have in fact played into the hands of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have long been advocating arming the opposition. So far, Turkey has resisted invoking that principle and has limited its support of the Syrian opposition to providing shelter to the SNC and FSA and has backed the US by providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition. The massacre in Houla, which effectively killed the Annan plan, may have prompted Ankara to reconsider its current policy regarding providing assistance to the opposition.

Turkey is also anticipating that defections from the Syrian Army will step up against the deadly backdrop of the civilian massacre since the army is predominantly composed of Sunni soldiers, although the senior ranks are staffed by Alawites. The SNC has, for some time, been calling for the establishment of a buffer zone that would help whole units defect at once, taking heavy weapons and armor with them. Since such a buffer zone will need military protection, Turkey is not willing to act alone and is seeking an international or regional mandate to provide legitimacy for such an action. The reports indicate that defections from Syria’s Army have increased in recent months with over 50 officers and six brigadier generals defecting to the FSA in early March.

Assad regime-PKK ties

The fact that there has been mounting evidence indicating that Syria is allowing members of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to mount attacks against Turkish interests from bases in Syria has already pushed Ankara into adopting countervailing measures to stem the threat. Among options considered were strengthening the FSA along the border areas to neutralize the threat of the PKK and secure the loyalty of some 1.5 million Kurds in Syria in order to drive a wedge between the PKK affiliate group there and other Kurdish groups.

Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin said last month that Turkish intelligence determined that Syria is allowing PKK terrorists to establish themselves in areas close to the Turkish border. Some terrorists have even taken charge of running small Syrian towns, Şahin claimed, describing the development as an apparent act of revenge against Turkey. “Terrorist groupings that were not there a year ago have been spotted,” Şahin said in a TV interview. “Syria is turning a blind eye to terrorist groupings in areas close to the border in order to create difficulty for Turkey and perhaps as a way to take revenge on Turkey,” he said.

The tipping point in relations came when the PKK claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in central Turkey that killed one policeman and wounded18 others late last month. Şahin said four people had been arrested after the attack and that their foreign links had been revealed. “The Syrian regime has allowed the PKK to be based, and even receive orders in the northern part of their country,” the minister announced recently. Turkey may push for a stronger case in the UN to intervene into Syria using the attacks as evidence that the regime is pulling out all the stops in order to crush the opposition and endanger the security of its neighbor. Oytun Orhan, an analyst from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) based in Ankara, said that “support offered to the PKK would play into the hands of Turkey, which is calling on the international community to make a move against Syria.”

Last but not least, Turkey still says that it may seek NATO’s assistance. The issue first came up in April when Erdoğan said that Turkey may consider invoking the NATO charter’s fifth article to protect Turkish national security in the face of increasing tension along the Syrian border.

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