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VERDA ÖZER >Is Turkey sending troops to Syria?

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We all have been bombarded by news and allegations about Syria this week. Some were about the radically changing dynamics within Syria, while others related to shifting regional alliances and U.S. policy.

Let’s go through them one by one.

First of all: Is Turkey sending troops to Syria?

This question was raised by a deputy of the main opposition party in Turkey two days ago. The Huffington Post also reported recently that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working to intervene in Syria soon.

All of the reliable sources in Ankara who I spoke with denied this claim, saying this possibility is out of question.

Yesterday it was reported by the Associated Press that “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in a pact to help anti-Assad rebels.” Is this true?

Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgiç, who I reached via phone, neither approved nor denied the allegation. He just said that “Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s views on Syria overlap. Our cooperation is proceeding.”

An important security source in Ankara acknowledged that the recent rapprochement between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is strengthening the Syrian opposition. “Before, different countries were following different policies in the field, undermining each other’s efforts. Now a partnership has emerged,” he said on the phone.

The reply of Joshua Landis, who is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a leading expert of the Syrian crisis in the U.S., verifies this allegation.

 “These three countries have decided to fund Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam and are willing to close their eyes to al-Nusra’s partnership with them. They probably argue that these groups will become dominant and push al-Nusra aside in the end,” Landis said.

Is a safe zone going to be finally built in Syria?

Apparently, the U.S. has been reluctant to become engaged in a safe zone as this carries the risk of a clash with the al-Assad regime.

My security source in Ankara said the main disagreement with the U.S. on this issue is actually related to the train- equip program. 

According to him, Turkey wants rebels trained in this program to be deployed in the safe zone, whereas the U.S. wants these rebels to only fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), again trying to avoid any clash with the regime. 

In other words, both the train-equip program and the issue of the safe zone are stopped by the same question: Against al-Assad or not?

Another reliable source in Ankara said the negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. accelerated last month and the two sides have agreed in principle on the train-equip program. But he added that even if they could reach full consensus today, it would take at least two to three months to find such a zone and that the rebels trained in the program would only be ready in 1.5 years to protect such a zone.

What is the U.S. stance on this?

 “There has been no shift in U.S. policy. In regards to establishing a buffer zone, it would represent a significant policy decision and would lead us into a major combat mission,” said one U.S. military official replying to my question.

On the other hand, Fred Hof, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council who was special advisor for Syria under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave hints of a change in the U.S. stance on the train-equip program.

“Given the size of ISIL and regime forces, the train-and-equip program is a drop in the bucket. Pentagon officials themselves are beginning to downgrade the significance of the program in their statements to the press,” Hof said.

How does the U.S. perceive the recent cooperation between al-Nusra and the “moderate rebels,” which it used to support and which Turkey still supports? 

Hof argues that American officials are quite concerned about the role of the al-Nusra Front in recent anti-regime operations. But he adds that “These are the very same officials who have opposed meaningful military assistance for nationalist rebels.” 

In response to this question, the same U.S. military official made a critical remark after emphasizing that al-Nusra is a designated terrorist organization for the U.S: “Our friends and competitors alike clearly understand the U.S. stance toward such organizations and their supporters.”

However, a former high-level U.S. official who no longer works with the Obama administration presented a different approach. According to him, although the U.S. publicly opposes groups like al-Nusra, it would not take any steps against them since their current collaboration allows a more efficient opposition against Assad.

Has the U.S. withdrawn its support from the rebels?

My security source in Ankara said the U.S. has completely cut off its support for one month.

Joshua Landis is on the same page. According to him, “Turkey and Saudi are now taking the lead” in supporting the rebels. “Americans are holding their collective breaths and figuring that Turkey and Saudi Arabia will have to live with the consequences more directly than Washington,” he says, adding, “after all, Turkey has over two million refugees on its soil,” Landis added.

Apparently all the groups within Syria, regional countries, like Turkey, and faraway countries like the U.S., have all pushed aside their ideological differences temporarily. 

But the situation on the ground is highly unlikely to change as long as Washington doesn’t become more engaged.

In the face of this extremely slippery ground, Turkey has no other option than to stand at an equal distance from all the groups involved. After all, the one who you have been backing could instantly stab you in the back.

May/09/2015

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