Zero Problems With This Syria?

April 25, 2011

Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy is in need of serious revision in light of recent developments in Syria. The Turkish leadership must send a much stronger message than the very softly worded declaration issued by the Foreign Ministry last week.

As Syria’s only democratic ally, Turkey has a moral and political responsibility to “severely condemn” the killing of 120 protesters in just one day by this brutal regime. Make no mistake: This is not a matter of idealism versus realpolitik. Turkey needs to change its “zero problems” policy with Syria not because of its ideals of freedom of democracy in the region. Logic, realism and self-interest should guide Turkey’s changed strategy towards Damascus.

Simply put, the destabilization of Syria is not in Turkey’s national interest. Yet, the path that the Assad regime has taken will achieve just that. It will destabilize Syria and potentially pave the road towards a sectarian civil war in the country. Is this what Turkey wants to see on its southern visa-free border? Damascus needs to know that there will be a price to pay in terms of relations with Turkey if it continues to kill hundreds of innocent civilian protestors who are demanding justice, reform and dignity.

It is now increasingly clear that the Syrian regime will not be able to deal with the demands of the people in a civilized and rational way. Bashar al-Assad is proving utterly unable and inept at riding this storm of Syrian awakening. How else can one explain promises of reforms while the regime is engaged in massacres of peaceful protesters? The current course of action taken by the Assad regime will lead to only more chaos and bloodshed.

Assad’s accusation that all the troubles inside the country are the result of a foreign plot and international conspiracy illustrate the familiar narrative used by authoritarian states facing similar demands for change. From Tunisia to Bahrain, and from Egypt to Yemen, all of the dictatorial regimes resort to this tactic. They explain legitimate and domestic demands for more democracy, freedom and non-corrupt governance as the sinister work of foreign plotters. This is an insult to the intelligence of millions of Arabs involved in demanding change. Even the most fanatical conspiracy theorists have a hard time believing that the CIA and Mossad are so skilled at simultaneously fomenting citizen rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

To be sure, the regime is facing an existential crisis. There are no good options for Assad. This young and relatively inexperienced autocrat desperately wants to control the pace of change. But he knows that more concessions signal his weakness. For instance, last Thursday, ahead of mass protests that broke out again on Friday, his government declared the end of the draconian state of emergency, which was in place for 48 years and had allowed blanket repression with impunity. When protestors gathered the next day, it became obvious that nothing had changed. Each time he will declare cosmetic reforms, people will get bolder and ask for more. This is why he engages in brutal crackdowns while simultaneously promising change. The sad reality is that he should have engaged in such reforms 10 years ago, when he inherited his position from his father. Now the expectations of the people are much higher and his harsher repression of peaceful dissent will only beget more opposition. As he kills more people a vicious cycle of more protests and more killings will follow. Turkey should realize that Assad will not be able to contain this downward spiral unless he decides to step down and declare a genuine process of democratic elections under a transitional government.

What makes the situation in Syria much more different than in Egypt and Tunisia is that the army will be willing to brutally crush the protests. The sectarian nature of the regime is the key factor here. Alawite loyalists in the top echelons of the Syrian military will show no mercy against the Sunni majority because their own survival will be at stake if they fall out of power. Only a peaceful transition to democracy will increase the chances of peaceful coexistence. At the end of the day, Ankara may not have much leverage with Damascus, especially at a time when the Baath regime is fighting for its own survival. But it is in Turkey’s national interest to condemn violence and push Assad towards a genuine transition to democratic elections.