Turkey’s Syria plans hit a hard rock

Turkey’s Syria plans hit a hard rock

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be angry over the “The Friends of the Syrian People” meeting in Istanbul but he does not have to worry much about the outcome. In the end the meeting only produced generalities, much to the annoyance of Syrians who were expecting concrete commitments against al-Assad.

In addition to this the Syrian National Council (SNC), which purports to represent all the people of Syria, only managed to get recognition as “one of the legitimate representatives” of the Syrians. Then there was the support – albeit lukewarm - the gathering had to give former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s efforts, even though Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the SNC abhor these efforts, which elevate al-Assad to the level of a legitimate interlocutor.

Prime Minister Erdoğan, who said before the Istanbul gathering that Ankara did not approve of Annan’s efforts, because it was unjust to sit the perpetrator and the victim at the same table also, also had to pay lip service to the so-called “Annan Plan,” endorsed by the U.N. and the Arab League. Erdoğan nevertheless qualified his remarks by adding that al-Assad would probably use this plan only to buy time – which is most probably true.

More crucially, Erdoğan, in his hawkish address to the “Friends of the Syrian People” said the international community had not only to speak with one voice on Syria, but also to act in a unified manner. Divested of all diplomatic coverings, it is clear that Ankara, together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, want international intervention against al-Assad, even if this takes the form of arming the opposition.

This does not appear viable, however, at this stage when the Security Council is divided over Syria. Judging by some statements, even Washington sees such an intervention in Syria as a potentially dangerous move which will destabilize that country further.

The basic problem with the Istanbul gathering was that it kicked off as something of a lame duck with Russia and China refusing to attend. More crucially, however, Annan also stayed away, even though his plan was the central topic of discussion. This was attributed to the bad mouthing his efforts got from Prime Minister Erdoğan only days before the Istanbul gathering.

Other notable absentees were the EU’s Catherine Ashton, who pulled out at the last minute, and Iraq – the current head of the Arab League – which only sent a low-level official. The only notable dignitaries at the meeting were U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to a lesser extent French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. Both, however, had to do a delicate balancing act by appearing to support Erdoğan’s hard line, while at the same time ensuring they did not undermine Annan’s efforts.

Erdoğan’s remark in Istanbul to the effect that it was out of the question for Turkey to support a plan which enabled a regime that oppressed its people to stay in power also indicates the difficulty Turkey faces here. It was contradictory for him to say this while paying lip service to Annan’s efforts, which of course accepts al-Assad as an interlocutor.

But then, Turkey is faced with more than just one contradiction over Syria. At any rate it is clear to most observers that Russia and Iran, in particular, will do everything to ensure that al-Assad and the Baath regime remain in power, and this is where Ankara’s expectations hit a hard rock.

While it is obvious that there will be no direct military intervention by the international community, it is also clear that arming the opposition will lead to a proxy war between outside powers standing on different sides of the fence, given that Russia and Iran will continue to arm al-Assad.

In the end the Istanbul gathering seems to have merely provided an opportunity for Erdoğan to vent his indignation against al-Assad, and to express certain hopes that have little chance of being realized at this stage.