Turkey Reassesses Its Ties To Syria’s Opposition

AL-MONITOR – By: Youssef al-Sharif  Oct 25, 2012 – Two months ago, political and media quarters in Turkey seemed optimistic about a possible change in Washington’s position on the Syrian crisis after the United States presidential election.

Summary: Turkey backed Syria’s opposition after conflict broke out between the government and rebels, writes Youssef al-Sharif. But it has been a tumultuous relationship, and with a cease-fire looming, Turkey could have a change of heart. 

Original Publisher: Al-Hayat (Pan Arab) – Ankara Crisis with Syrian Opposition and Adha Truce

They expected that Washington would start working on settling the issue, either by mobilizing the Friends of Syria group and exhorting them to create a safe zone in northern Syria, or by arming the opposition and providing it with financial, military and intelligence support in order to bring down the regime.

However, this optimism faded away and was replaced by tension and the exchange of missiles across the border with Syria. This optimism was also affected by the positions of the Syrian opposition, which is splintered both politically and militarily. The image that all Turkish quarters had envisioned was that if a greater amount of Syrian opponents joined the Syrian National Council (SNC), which was supposed to overhaul its structure to attract more members, and if the opposition’s armed military on the ground were unified, then the stage would be set for the post-US elections period, which would witness a crucial move on the part of Washington.

However, the Turkish efforts in this regard were a complete fiasco. In fact, Ankara found itself facing a new — and perhaps more difficult — test in light of the Eid al-Adha truce project launched by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

This project was perceived by many Turkish parties as a prelude to correct the track of the Turkish policy, after Turkey had lost hope in the Syrian opposition. Still, Turkey is clinging to the hope of overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but it may have begun to reconsider its position and settle for a smaller piece of the new ruling pie in Syria. In fact, the Istanbul visit by CIA Director David Petraeus in early September revived the old Turkish optimism. According to sources within the Syrian opposition, Petraeus met with a number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders and militant groups on the ground, including the FSA Unification Brigade, Abdulkadir Saleh, who made his first public appearance in Istanbul in conjunction with Petraeus’ visit.Saleh announced that the opposition seized 70% of Aleppo and is working on unifying the ranks of the armed groups. He then announced the formation of the Free National Army, which is supposed to bring together all of the opposition’s armed militias. Afterwards, the free army’s military leaders were exhorted to move inside Syria to be able to closely watch and lead the operations on the ground, thus increasing talks about an important meeting held by the Free Syrian National Council in Doha.

For a while, it seemed that the main opposition parties responded to the Turkish move to unite their ranks in front of the American observer, but it was not long before this picture faded away, either due to Syrian tactics on the ground, which worked on dragging Turkey into the conflict by bombing its territory, or due to the Aleppo bombings, whose responsibility was claimed by al-Qaeda and which came as a fatal response to Turkey’s efforts to unify the military command of the opposition.

At first, articles were leaked to Western newspapers. They said the supply of arms to the FSA and armed groups has been stopped as a punishment for their failure to unite.These articles were followed by accusations against specific Arab countries of financing jihadist and religious groups that didn’t fall under the auspices of the FSA in Syria. Then, there were official US and international statements that formally voiced their concern over the activity of “extremist” groups that are operating on the ground without allowing anyone to have any influence on their decisions or objectives. It seemed that criticizing the performance of the opposition’s armed militias was tantamount, even if indirectly, to criticizing Ankara. Turkey bet on the scenario of a military settlement, despite the fact that it was the one refusing to provide the opposition with anti-tank weapons and other advanced anti-aircraft out of fear that these could fall into the hands of terrorist groups that might later use them against the interests of Turkey. This is because Turkey is the most affected by the terrorists that are joining the confrontation, be they from al-Qaeda or from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Thus, Ankara faced difficulties in achieving its goal of directly overthrowing the Syrian regime militarily, and it seemed that its choice has cornered it and put it at the mercy of the actions of the Syrian political and armed opposition. Meanwhile, it seemed like Damascus had more options to respond to this Turkish rationale. Consequently, it endeavored to drag Turkey into its war, and conveyed a message to its northern neighbor that it was making a mistake by thinking that the military option on the ground would be limited to within Syria’s borders.

Syria argued that al-Qaeda attacks, which increased in Aleppo, are in the interest of the Syrian regime at the political level, even if they harmed it at the military one. Then, Turkey was shocked by the Syrian political opposition, which it had previously embraced, when the Syrian National Movement revealed documents that were reportedly leaked from the Syrian intelligence. According to these documents, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the killing of two Turkish pilots after their reconnaissance aircraft was targeted near the Syrian coast and crashed into international waters. The pilots survived the incident. Ankara believed that the disclosure of these documents was an attempt by the Syrian opposition to draw the Turkish army into a war against Syria or to embarrass the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in public. This irritated the Turkish government and pushed it to adopt a sarcastic position toward these documents and to question their authenticity.

This incident, as well as the repeated attempts by the Syrian National Council to restructure itself, probably prompted Ankara to lose confidence in the Syrian opposition or at least to reconsider its calculations regarding the future of Syria.

Based on that, some Turkish observers believe that Turkey will go back on its previous positions regarding a military settlement on the ground. They also say that Turkey has begun to accept middle solutions that allow a transitional government to emerge that include representatives of the regime as well as Chinese and Iranian interests, which would be similar to the “blocking third” government in Lebanon. Then, Ankara’s conflict would change from a conflict with the Assad regime into a conflict with Assad in person. This was reflected in the proposal by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to allow Farouk al-Shara to manage the transitional phase, knowing that Shara was never enthusiastic about the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement. This rapprochement, which began in 2004 and was not part of any harmonization and cooperation plan, maintained skepticism about Ankara’s intentions regarding this rapprochement with Damascus. At that time, some Turkish observers believed that marginalizing Shara by appointing him vice president was a reason behind his position regarding Turkey.

Ankara — which previously announced its support for the Geneva statement and its reservations about imposing this statement on the Syrian opposition, and reaffirmed the need that the Syrian people choose the most appropriate solution to their crisis — is currently testing the Syrian opposition through the truce proposal to halt fighting during the Eid al-Adha holiday.

It is true that Ankara seemed to support this proposal and to use it as the foundation for discussion with Tehran — in the meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Azerbaijan — and that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu formally called all parties in Syria to cease fire during the Eid holiday.

However, Turkey remains in an unenviable position, whatever the results of this call for a truce proposal. In fact, if the Syrian opposition complies with Brahimi’s proposal, the Syrian regime will increasingly accuse Turkey of controlling the armed opposition and logistically supporting it, even though this option may radically change the path of the conflict in Syria and turn it into a political dispute rather than a military one. However, if the armed opposition rejects this proposal or is driven to fight back in response to the regime, Turkish efforts will be in vain and it will become clear to Turkish politicians that they cannot rely on the Syrian opposition.

Ankara is aware of these consequences, but it still preferred to support the truce proposal, knowing that the Syrian regime would not be committed to it and may seek to expand the conflict to the region.This test and its outcomes will represent an important experience for Turkey, which is preparing to host Russian President Vladimir Putin in an official visit in early December. The visit is a true chance to harmonize their views regarding Syria, especially because it will follow the announcement of the winner in the US presidential elections.

This would make the Russian-Turkish dialogue more realistic, when the post-elections landscape becomes clear and Ankara determines its stance regarding the armed opposition on the ground.

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