Time to get real on Syria

Time to get real on Syria

The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government is trying to present the European Union’s lifting of its arms embargo on Syria as a success for its diplomacy. The government-controlled Anatolia news agency (AA) was quoted by daily Hürriyet on Wednesday as claiming that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu played an important role in this decision during the meeting he had with EU ministers in Brussels on Monday.

But, as the European press is indicating, the embargo was lifted not on the basis of a consensus decision, but because there was no consensus on extending it. So if Davutoğlu was as “influential” as AA claims, he had the easiest of tasks. At any rate, contrary to the impression created by some in the pro-government media, this “success” of Ankara’s does not mean the EU will be supplying arms to the Syrian opposition.

What it means is that EU members who opposed the extension of the embargo are free to do so if they want to. Judging by press reports from Paris and London, however, France and Britain, who lobbied for the lifting of the embargo, should not be expected to open supply lines for the required sophisticated weapons any time soon.

If the Syrian opposition is relying on these countries, it is most probably going to be disappointed again. If the Erdoğan government expects the game in Syria to change now as a result of what happened in Brussels on Monday, it too is headed for more disappointment.

It was obvious from the start that any suggestion of weapons to the Syrian opposition would be immediately countered by Russia. That is exactly what happened on Tuesday when Moscow accused “hotheads” in the West of planning to intervene in Syria, and announced that it would deliver advanced missile system to the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Israel immediately jumped in the fray and, hollow as its warnings to Russia may sound, this will only complicate matters for Europe and the U.S., who now have to consider the prospect of an arms race, as well as a number of proxy wars in the region between different actors pushing different agendas.

Mention these simple facts in Turkey and supporters of the Erdoğan government immediately attack you as a sympathizer of “al-Assad the killer.” Turkey is a country were impressions rather than facts have always been the order of the day, but this will not change the situation in Syria.

Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş put it well over the weekend to a group of journalists in Ankara:

“Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his bureaucracy cannot read Syria. The minister says, ‘I know Aleppo and Damascus street by street.’ He doesn’t. He doesn’t know the feelings of the Kurd, the Arab, or the Armenian. He doesn’t know the streets of Hakkari or Damascus.”

Ankara has consistently misjudged the Syria crisis. The Erdoğan government is paying lip service to the notion that the Geneva II conference that Washington and Moscow are trying to broker now will be crucial. But it is hard to say they are keen about this conference which the al-Assad regime has said it will attend.

Ankara from the start aimed for a new Syria run predominantly by Sunnis of the Islamic Brotherhood bent who are also friendly to Turkey. But, as Demirtaş said, it failed to read Syria, and is refusing to understand the regional implications of pouring more fuel on the Syrian fire by promoting the arming of the opposition.

The EU, which is in total disarray again over a crucial international crisis, would have had more leverage over Russia in relation to Syria had it unanimously upheld its arms embargo, and pushed for the diplomatic and political line that Moscow is promoting.

If Davutoğlu was as influential as claimed in convincing the EU to lift its arms embargo, then it is questionable whether he did a service to Turkey and the region, or merely contributed to the dangerous inflammation of a crisis that cannot be contained. It is therefore time for Turkey to get real if it really wants the bloodshed in Syria to end soon.