x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Turkey's hands are tied in Syria by its disingenuous Nato allies

The failure of the international community to respond to the violence in Syria demonstrates a lack of urgency and seriousness in dealing with the country's deepening humanitarian crisis.

Last week in Geneva, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Turkey and Arab League representatives agreed on a transition plan for Syria. They proposed a transitional government that would include members of both the regime and the opposition.

The plan failed to break new ground as Russia successfully blocked a provision that would have excluded anyone whose participation would undermine the process - which obviously includes President Bashar Al Assad. And so the plan was widely dismissed as another sign of the impotence of the international community and its failure to act meaningfully to end the bloodshed.

A closer look, however, shows that the plan was more about Turkey than Syria. The events that led to the Geneva plan underline two facts: first, Turkey will not be allowed to act unilaterally to bring down the regime. Second, the international community will deliberately oppose any moves that might bring about an abrupt, chaotic downfall of the Baathist regime. These attempts raise the question of whether the international community's apparent impotence is real or rehearsed.

Consider the chain of events that led to the Geneva plan.

On June 22, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish warplane, dealing a massive embarrassment to Ankara at home and abroad. Turkey escalated by establishing a de facto buffer zone on the border, deploying two armoured brigades and anti-aircraft batteries to the frontier, and scrambling F-16 jets three times as Syrian helicopters approached the border. In April, when Syrian troops fired across the border, Ankara promised: "We will certainly take necessary measures if such incidents reoccur." Ankara then discussed the idea of a buffer zone with Washington but the idea was rejected.

Four days after the jet was shot down, an emergency Nato meeting convened to discuss measures under Article 4 of the alliance's charter, which could potentially spell out Turkey's plan of action. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepared the Turkish nation for an escalation, saying that the military's "rules of engagement" had changed, and that any Syrian army activity near the border would be treated as a threat. He also affirmed Turkey's full support for the Syrian opposition's goal to bring down the regime.

Reports from the Geneva talks indicated that Ankara presented plans for a no-fly zone, much to the surprise of its Nato allies.

While the alliance's chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, unequivocally condemned the incident, he fell short of supporting an escalation. When asked whether Nato would take further measures if a similar incident occurred again, Mr Rasmussen dodged the question: "Such an incident won't happen again ... We closely monitor the situation and if necessary we will consult and discuss what else could be done."

A day before the Geneva meeting, senior US intelligence officials, in leaked statements to The Wall Street Journal, had said the Turkish jet was "most likely" struck down by shore-based anti-aircraft guns while it was inside Syrian airspace - despite Ankara's detailed presentation to its Nato allies to the contrary. The leaked statements could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine Turkey's account of the incident and force it to de-escalate.

The Geneva meeting was the last straw. The meeting's final communique emphasised the integrity of Syria's border: the signatories supported a "Syria-led" transition, and emphasised that "the sovereignty" and "territorial integrity of Syria must be respected". This language echoes Article 5 of Nato's charter, which stipulates that the allies will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the "territorial integrity, political independence or security" of any of the members is threatened.

In light of the plan, any attempts by Turkey to escalate will be seen as obstructing international diplomacy. According to Ismail Yasa, a prominent Turkish columnist, Ankara realises that the Geneva plan will not be implemented but is obliged to hold back until it officially fails. "The majority [in Turkey] expects a response to the jet's downing to maintain Turkey's dignity but without being drawn into a war," Yasa told The National.

The plan was a major diplomatic victory for Russia, preventing a Turkish escalation while failing to specify any sort of enforcement mechanism. The regime now has a back-up plan on the shelf - the "Syria-led" transition - while for the time being Turkey is obliged to respect Syria's territorial integrity.

It is fair to ask why Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, could convene the major powers in Geneva after the jet's downing, yet failed to do the same after each of the several major massacres in Syria recently.

This Geneva plan is a reminder of the initial Annan peace plan in April, secured shortly after the question of arming the rebels gained momentum. After the April plan was adopted, any moves towards the militarisation of the opposition were seen as detrimental to diplomatic efforts. On both accounts, the failure of the international community to respond to the violence is not a sign of impotence, but of a lack of urgency and seriousness in dealing with Syria's deepening humanitarian crisis.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140