A ‘friendly’ gathering

A ‘friendly’ gathering

A front-page lead article Sunday in Syria’s official Al-Baath newspaper blasted the one-day “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting in Istanbul as a conspiracy. The paper, which reflects the official view of the Syrian government, called it a “regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria.”

Even though the meeting’s Turkish hosts tried to downplay it, the absence of Russia and China was of course a setback. Besides, Iran was not at all invited to the meeting. Why? Because neither China nor Russia believed in sincerity of the West. Iran, on the other hand, has been approaching the Syria issue with the awareness that the target is itself; Syria has just become the last proxy battlefield.

Not long ago, just last summer, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a buddy of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Up until the 6.5-hour-long meeting Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had with Al-Assad in August 2011, Erdoğan and the Syrian leader were such intimate friends that they could entertain together at a soccer match, convene joint cabinet meetings, and lift visa requirements for nationals of their two countries for touristic or business trips. After all, never ever in the history of the oppressive Baathist regime in Syria was there any success competing with that enjoyed by Erdoğan’s Turkey as regards the overall number of journalists placed behind bars.

At that August meeting, which was apparently Turkey’s last chance to get al-Assad to stop behaving like a wild lion – as his name implies – and instead meow like a domestic cat for his and his Baathist regime’s survival. The messages delivered to Al-Assad at that meeting were indeed rather important and probably could have helped end the crisis in Syria before it evolved into a civil war. Stop the violence, withdraw tanks and troops from city centers, surprise the international community by undertaking radical reforms to satisfy the people’s expectations of democracy and freedom… 

The most important message was perhaps a reference to Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Damascus, and a warning that if other countries also withdrew ambassadors the regime would lose its legitimacy. Last month Turkey joined a huge list of countries that have closed down their Damascus embassies. It is clear that with most countries having withdrawn their missions, the current Syrian government has a serious legitimacy problem. 

Yet, the lead article in Al-Baath was equally correct that the Istanbul meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” will not serve any other purpose than further escalating the uprising in our neighboring country, and push it into a full-fledged civil war. The more Turkey and other international players help Syrian opposition obtain war machines, arms, and ammunition, the wilder the dimensions the Syrian crisis will take on.

In the absence of a declaration of war or authorization by Parliament, it is a crime under Turkish law to allow Turkish territory be used for hostile purposes against any neighboring country. Turkey is hosting scores of rebel Syrian commanders, and there are serious claims that the rebel forces are receiving arms through Turkish territory. With almost 50 percent electoral support, the current Turkish government can escape all kinds of accountability problems for now, but as electoral support cannot last forever, tomorrow may be bleak -- particularly if the effort to change Syrian regime fails.