Turkey’s options in handling the Syrian crisis

by Hasan Karaahmet

As Syria’s Assad regime continues to struggle in containing the widespread uprisings and demonstrations for a more democratic, progressive political system throughout the country, neighboring Turkey is facing an increasingly difficult humanitarian crisis just north of the long border.

Last Thursday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mr. Ahmet Davutoglu spoke with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, about the changing security environment in Syria and implications for Turkey. Movement of Syrian troops north near the Turkish border in an attempt to control the outflow of Syrian refugees into Turkey was among the critical subjects the two ministers discussed. It is no secret now that the situation at the border and increasing numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey, now approaching some 20,000, is creating tensions between the two countries.

Thus far, Turkey’s AKP government has followed a bi-polar political strategy in handling the Syrian crisis. It publicly criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while quietly advising the same regime on how to contain and eliminate the opposition using tangible, progressive reforms. On the other hand, Turkey also hosted open platforms for Syrian opposition leaders on Turkish soil, in order to provide guidance and discuss their strategies in toppling the Assad regime and achieving a higher political presence in Syria.

Currently, Turkey seems to have three options in peacefully diffusing the threatening situation beyond its southern border and stopping the inflow of Syrian refugees.

  • (1) The first option Turkey is suggesting to Syria involves removal of Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, who leads the Syrian Republican Guard and is primarily responsible for killing and mistreatment of a great number of Syrian opposition members. Turkish authorities have wisely avoided condemning Bashar al-Assad and kept their focus on Maher instead. According to a June 18th report by Al Arabiya, an emissary of Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Syria to ask Bashar to fire his brother. This suggestion requires Maher to be exiled to Turkey or another suitable country where he would be monitored and kept away from militancy and interfering with Syrian internal politics. Turkey points out that such a move would portray Bashar as a truly progressive, reformist leader who is willing to exile his brother for the greater good of Syria.

Some western analysts generally unfamiliar with the region point out that this option undermines the role of Maher in keeping different factions of the Syrian Armed Forces together and suggest that exiling Maher may push Syria into an explosive infighting and eventually even partitioning. I, however, disagree with this observation as I believe it is the Assad family as a whole and its surrogates within the Syrian state that provide the said unifying function. Power of the al-Assad clan is currently personified in Bashar al-Assad, and any decision he makes, even as radical as firing his brother, will be readily digestible by the forces in Syria that determine the political and economic dynamics in that country. So long as the Alawites’ traditional hold of economic power in Syria’s western coastal cities is not damaged, their support of Bashar and the al-Assad family in general will remain strong.

That said, we should not forget that the former Syrian President, Bashar’s father Hazef al-Assad did successfully exile his younger brother Rifaat al-Assad, also a military man, after a coup attempt, a move that demonstrated the reach of his power and strengthened his regime for years to come. I believe the same may as well be the case for his sons.

  • (2) The second option Turkey is working on for Syria is similar to the Lebanese political model, where a confessional system based on a 1932 census is in effect that just about equally divides power among Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim factions. Proposal for Syria would similarly allocate the power, and hence resources, somewhat equally among the country’s majority Sunni Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, and minority Alawites, Christians and Druze. This new system would create strong checks and balances that would prevent either side from dominating the economy or monopolizing the politics of Syria.

Turkey is ready to provide all the assistance needed for accomplishing this. If completed successfully, it would score an important point for Turkey in the country’s ambitious mission to become a prestigious leader and a secular democracy model for the Islamic world.

  • (3) The third option proposes the legalization of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). At the moment, membership in the group is not only outlawed in Syria, but also punishable by death. Turkey says legalization of the Syrian MB and turning the group into a legitimate political party would limit its militancy and draw the movement closer to a more peaceful, political struggle. This would, in effect, dramatically defuse the Syrian crisis.

Al-Assad is however seems to be currently against the idea as it bears the potential for eventually growing in power via unification of the majority Sunni base turning into electoral votes and undermining the established power of Al-Assad’s Baath party and the economic monopoly of Syria’s Alawites.

It will be interesting to see the events unfold and watch Turkey make its moves before the crisis grows into an even bigger refugee crisis, and with the movements of even more Syrian military units into the border region, starts posing a national security danger for Turkey.

TR Defence