As the spring issue of Insight Turkey goes to print the Middle East nears another great crisis or even a war. The Syrian quagmire may be the current harbinger of full-out war in the region. It has been a year since the uprisings started. The Syrian regime met the peaceful demonstrations of its people with violent and bloody repression. The Arab spring, it seems at the moment, got stuck in Syria where President Bashar Assad confronted the demands of his people for change with a violent crackdown. The well-known “mukhabarat state” of Syria did not bow to “people power,” at least for the time being.
The result is, according to UN officials, over ten thousand deaths at the hands of the Syrian security forces, which are shelling and bombing cities like Homs, Iblid, Deraa, Taftanaz, and Aleppo.
People are fleeing out of fear of governmental violence. The UN estimates more than 300 thousand Syrians are internally displaced. The number of refugees fleeing to Turkey has already reached twenty-five thousand, and is increasing daily. The Turkish government has recently asked the UN to monitor the situation and help Turkey cope with the needs and demands of the refugees. The talk of a safe heaven or safe areas within the Syrian border is frequently voiced in response.
There is a humanitarian crisis rapidly emerging in Syria. Despite this, humanitarian aid organizations are not allowed inside Syria. The United Nations estimates that over one million Syrians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. UN representative, Valery Amos, recently described what she saw in Bab Amr in Homs as “total destruction.”
People have been trapped in cities surrounded by Assad’s troops, hospitals have run out of medicine and food shortages are at hand. The Syrian opposition, reluctant to ask for direct military intervention thus far, demands humanitarian aid for the people trapped in the cities under siege.
If implemented the Annan plan accepted by Bashar Assad might improve the situation on the ground for civilians. But the acceptance by Assad of the plan prepared by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, was generally received with caution given the lack of credibility of the Assad regime.
Meanwhile diplomatic pressure against the regime has intensified. Meeting on April 1st in Istanbul, the 70-nation Friends of Syria recognized the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative” of all Syrians. But the opposition asked for more. Arming the opposition is argued to be an option if the international community is unable to stop the Syrian regime from massacring its own people.
These are all tough choices. The Syrian regime is threatening that a military intervention in Syria will trigger a regional war. This may be true. Such a development will certainly have a tremendous impact upon the countries of the region, namely Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and even the Arab Gulf countries.
The potential of the Syrian crisis to turn into a regional conflict seems to give the Assad regime the impression that international or regional military interventions are unlikely, and thus a policy of destruction at the hands of government troops directed at the pro-opposition cities and regions remains their best strategy.
I think that this is a major and costly miscalculation. The Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council does not eliminate the possibility of some form of international action in Syria if the humanitarian crisis gets out of hand and the situation further deteriorates. Yes, the Assad regime proved to be strong and has held out. However, it is being shaken by its own violence, which is claiming the lives of its own civilians each day.
It seems that the Assad regime faces a paradox: The more violence they inflict on the people of Syria, the more pressure it places on the international community to use coercive means against the Syrian government. Ironically, the moment Bashar al-Assad thinks he has reached the objective of breaking down his people’s resistance may be in fact the moment the international community decides to take action to rescue the Syrian people from being targeted by its own government.
Turkey naturally cannot remain indifferent to the developments taking place in Syria. Initially, Turkish policy was to support a gradual and orderly transformation in Syria. But Assad failed to achieve any such gradual change or make any effort in this direction contrary to Turkish expectations.
Turkey, by engaging with Syria early on, tried to influence a slow, gradual and orderly change so as to avoid the potential spillover effects of a radical shake up in neighboring Syria. But Assad not only let his own people down but also the Turkish government, which at the origin of the conflict credited him with the ability to reform.
Now Turkey, in cooperation with the Arab League and the West, pursues a policy of “regime change” in Syria. It will not be easy, of course. But what will also not be possible is maintaining the regime as it is in Syria today. Change will come but it is becoming increasingly clear that it will only come with a heavy cost that the Syrian people will have to bear.
In its upcoming issues Insight Turkey and its Arabic edition, Rueya Turkiya, will continue to analyze the situation in Syria with expert contributions.