x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Ankara pressures Assad, fearing war in Syria will hurt Turkey

Ankara is leading the international movement against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, warning of civil war and preparing for the imminent departure of Mr Al Assad.

ISTANBUL // Turkey has moved to the forefront of countries pressuring Syria because it believes a prolonged period of instability would hurt Ankara's own interests and the regime in Damascus will fall, analysts say.

A former stout ally, Ankara has led the international movement against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, warning of civil war in Syria and preparing for the imminent departure of Mr Al Assad.

"There is a risk of transforming into civil war," said Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, after meeting Alain Juppe, his French counterpart, in Ankara yesterday. Mr Juppe said "it is now too late" for the Syrian regime, because it failed to implement necessary reforms.

Whether the Syrian president launches reforms or not, Ankara has been looking at a post-Al Assad Syria, Veysel Ayhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, told The National. "Turkey is now working on what will happen after Assad."

Mr Ayhan said Turkey and Arab countries were following a "plan to unseat Assad". They have been preparing sanctions against Damascus, and some Syrian opposition figures have said they would accept a military intervention by Turkey. In case sanctions and other measures failed to push the Al Assad government from power, a Turkish-Arab military operation would be conceivable as a last resort, Mr Ayhan said.

Mehmet Sahin, an expert on Syria at Ankara's Gazi University, said Turkish participation in efforts to put pressure on Syria was crucial. "Turkey plays a key role," he said, adding that Ankara's pressure on Syria was pushing Damascus into a corner and Mr Al Assad showed weakness by resorting to threats. "Assad is resorting to a policy of blackmail by saying that he will blow up the whole region," he said, referring to a statement by Mr All Assad last month in which he said Western intervention would trigger an "earthquake" that "would burn the whole region".

Only about a year ago, Turkey sent a dozen of its ministers to Syria to attend a joint cabinet meeting with the government in Damascus, a sign of the close partnership the two countries enjoyed. Turkey's turn from friend to foe within a few months came as Ankara took a fresh look at its national interests in the Al Assad regime's failure to end the uprising that started in March. "Turkey did not act out of humanitarian reasons, but based on its own interests," Mr Ayhan said.

With a 900-kilometre border with Turkey and Syria's geographical position as a "door to the Middle East" for Turkey's economy, Ankara concluded that long-term instability in Syria had to be avoided, Mr Ayhan said.

"If Assad had been able to bring the situation under control by May, neither Turkey nor the Arabs would have done anything," Mr Veysel said. But the prolonged violence in Syria drove the neighbours into action, he added. "Turkey wants this to be over as quickly as possible."

Arab and Turkish sanctions against Syria are set to take effect today. There has been no official statement about what Turkish sanctions would be, but government ministers have talked about a possible cut of Turkish power and water supplies to Syria.

"The Turkish government now is positioned at the sharp end of the sword that dangles over Damascus, lending full support to Syrian opposition groups and urging other nations to 'join the struggle'," Taylan Bilgic, the managing editor of the Hurriyet Daily News, an English language newspaper, wrote in a column yesterday.

When the Syrian uprising began, Turkey initially tried to convince the Al Assad government to bow to the pressure by implementing democratic changes. But Turkey ended its efforts in August, and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced in September that he no longer was in contact with Mr Al Assad. This week, Mr Erdogan warned Mr Al Assad in a speech that he ran the risk of meeting the same fate as other Middle Eastern leaders driven from power by revolts in recent months.

Turkey allowed the Syrian opposition to meet in Turkish cities, and Mr Davutoglu has twice met representatives from the Syrian National Council (SNC), an anti-Al Assad group formed in Istanbul, in defiance of warnings by the Syrian government.

At the same time, Syrian army deserters said they have used Turkish refugee camps to organise a resistance group called the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This week, the FSA said it staged an attack against a military intelligence base near Damascus.

The leader of Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood said on Thursday that Syrians would accept Turkish intervention in the country. "The Syrian people would accept intervention coming from Turkey, rather than from the West, if its goal was to protect the people," the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Riad Shakfa said in Istanbul. "We may ask more from Turkey as a neighbour."

Mr Ayhan, the Orsam analyst, said Turkey and Arab countries may seek a United Nations resolution allowing the use of force if sanctions against Damascus and support for the Syrian opposition failed to produce the desired results.