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28 August 2012

USCENTCOM: Syria Analysis Part II: Turkey’s Role

Wall painting of Bashar al-Assad, courtesy tgraham/flickr
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

A lack of intelligence assets on the ground and Russia’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council make a US-led attempt to overthrow the Assad regime unlikely. Instead, it may fall to Turkey to take a lead role in buttressing up the Syrian opposition.

By Eric Barros for Center for Advanced Defense Studies (CADS)

Recent reports indicate a high level of preparation in the United States for dealing with Syria after the fall of President Bashar al Assad. Still, American intelligence assets in the country remain thin. President Obama issued a finding that facilitates the transfer of non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, but this and other minor initiatives suggest a lack of will to take a leading role in the effort to overthrow President Assad. Any attempt at a solution from the United Nations is futile given the combination of Russia’s position toward the situation and their veto power. Despite President Putin’s calls for an internal solution, the Syrian National Congress (SNC) refuses to accept any kind of unity government in which President Assad remains in office. Due to these and other circumstances, the lead role in aiding the Syrian opposition falls upon Turkey. Going forward, Turkey and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be the preeminent political actors in Syria.

The Turkish border with Syria continues to be a major asset in the effort against the current regime. On the humanitarian front, waves of refugees cross into Turkey in order to escape the escalating violence. The SNC and Syrian defectors, both government and military, routinely find asylum within Turkey. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are utilizing the strategic importance of the border region, as the two Arab nations teamed with Turkey to establish a base for training and arms transfer to the FSA. Allowing Saudi and Qatari forces to operate from within Turkey shields Prime Minister Erdogan from accusations of ethnically motivated meddling in an Arab affair. The joint effort also allows for Turkish management of the Saudi export of Wahhabism to Syria, which is characteristic of Saudi ventures in the region.
Turkey’s own interests are threefold. They seek to close any window of opportunity for Kurdish empowerment in the region, maximize their standing in international politics, and maintain stable neighbors. The latter goal is largely dependent on the role of the FSA. In discussing non-state armed groups in post-war politics, Veronique Dudouet writes that in order to ”ensure that they maintain the political will to undergo war-to-peace transitions, they should feel that the process will address their structural grievances and empower them as a sociopolitical force rather than weaken their capacity to effect change.” This point is particularly relevant in the case of the Free Syrian Army in a post-Assad Syria. Granted, the legitimacy of the Syrian National Congress may go unquestioned upon their return , but this will not negate the large constituency the FSA represents. Therefore, it is imperative that the FSA be treated as a legitimate political partner and is not left out of the rebuilding process. From the western perspective, the ideal aftermath of regime change in Syria involves SNC governance with the FSA following a sort of Libyan revolutionary model and dutifully securing the country. Even if the FSA finds more support than the SNC, or vice versa, both owe much of their continued existence to Turkish support. Thus, Turkey’s role and influence in Syria will not end with the fall of President Assad.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Apocalyptic Musings about Syria
A Test for Turkey’s Foreign Policy: The Syria Crisis
Why Syria?

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Editor's note:

The piece was originally posted on the blog, Global Security Monitor, with ISN partner Center for Advanced Defense Studies.


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