Friday, June 1, 2012

After Houla, will Ankara act?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Ever since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan memorably compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler and Mussolini last November, Ankara has looked to be among the governments most receptive to the idea of military intervention in Syria. This was underscored in March when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately rejected proposals by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for the creation of military and humanitarian ‘buffer zones’, as revealed by commentator Tony Badran in a NOW Lebanon exclusive. Naturally, then, eyes will again be on Ankara in the wake of last weekend’s mass killings in Houla, which left 108 civilians dead, including 49 children, according to UN figures. In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Wednesday ordered all Syrian diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours, and warned of potential “further measures” to be taken.

In fact, some say that Turkey has already started intervening covertly. The Henry Jackson Society Middle East specialist and occasional NOW Lebanon contributor Michael Weiss reported last Tuesday that the Turkish army had begun arming and training the Syrian opposition. “Rebel sources in Hatay told me last night that not only is Turkey supplying light arms to select battalion commanders, it is also training Syrians in Istanbul. Men from the unit I was embedded with were vetted and called up by Turkish intelligence in the last few days and large consignments of AK-47s are being delivered by the Turkish military to the Syrian-Turkish border,” wrote Weiss, who had reported from Hatay for NOW the previous week.

Weiss elaborated on this in conversation with NOW. “At the moment, it’s just Kalashnikovs, paid for by Gulf countries, probably through third-party intermediaries. A US government source tells me there are RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] too but the rebels haven’t confirmed that. In any case, it’s not what they need to defeat the regime. If you ask them, they tell you they need anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons; stingers and cobras. My guess is this is a kind of trial phase, to see how they get on. And we’ve already begun to see some results; they’ve liberated some key areas of Idlib in the last few days.”

NOW has been unable to confirm this report independently. Maher Esber, a Syrian opposition activist with close ties to rebels on the ground, says that Free Syria Army personnel in Turkey are currently working independently of the government. Both the Hurriyet columnist Mustafa Akyol and the ORSAM analyst Oytun Orhan told NOW that while they had heard similar rumors, they had seen no concrete evidence as yet. Weiss, however, asserted that both a US government source and an American journalist currently embedded with the rebels have corroborated the story. “I think it’s definitely true – I don’t see any reason the rebels would make this up when just two weeks ago they were complaining to me that they hadn’t received anything,” he added.

As for whether Houla will become the “turning point” in the conflict that the US State Department said on Tuesday that it “hoped” for, analysts seem skeptical. “There have been a lot of turning points,” said Orhan sarcastically. “Houla might be one of them. But while countries will surely increase pressure on Syria, in practice it’s difficult to do anything that really helps the opposition. We’ll see some strong words being exchanged, and various declarations being made, but I don’t think any country, not even Turkey, will take military measures alone.”

Weiss agreed, echoing Orhan’s refrain that, “There were lots of turning points. [The siege of] Baba Amr was supposed to be a turning point. But the UN Security Council statement wasn’t that significant. We now know that fewer than 20 of the victims were killed by shelling – the bulk were executed by the shabiha [pro-regime militiamen] – so what the UNSC did was blame Assad for the minority of the deaths, while leaving open the question of who killed the rest. So, naturally, the regime and the Russians now say it was the opposition that did it, which is patently false. Once again the Security Council has effectively bought the regime more time.

“So I doubt this can be turned into anything significant at the level of international action. Turkey is very keen to establish buffer zones, but it can’t and won’t do anything without American consent. And we come back to the fact that, in an election year, President Obama of all presidents is not going to involve himself in a Middle Eastern conflict.”

Indeed, with Russia stating plainly on Thursday that its “consistent” position on Syria will not yield to “pressure,” the diplomatic impasse that has hitherto immobilized the Security Council looks set to persist. Short of direct, unilateral, boots-on-the-ground intervention, then, Turkey and its allies against Assad are left with few options but to covertly fund and arm the rebels – a course of action that may well be already underway.

Nadine Elali and Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article.

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