The Middle East Channel

Syria stalls on troop withdrawal but Annan remains optimistic

Violent clashes continue across Syria as government troops, heavy weaponry, and tanks have not been pulled out from urban centers despite the passing U.N. deadline for withdrawal. According to activists, 101 people were killed Tuesday, predominantly in Homs. Meanwhile the U.N. Security Council unanimously backed Annan, issuing a statement of "deep concern" while Turkey pushed for a Security Council resolution after another incident of shots fired from across the border. Nonetheless, United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan remained optimistic that there could be "improved conditions on the ground" by the ceasefire deadline of 6:00 am on Thursday if all sides respect the plan. According to Annan, he received assurances from the Syrian government that they would implement the ceasefire, and are no longer pressing for a written guarantee from the opposition but merely an affirmation from Annan that they will lay down their arms. Elsewhere, in a trip to Tehran, Annan is appealing to Iran for assistance in ending the Syria conflict saying, "Iran, given its special relations with Syria, can be part of the solution."

Headlines  

  • Clashes between the Yemeni military and al Qaeda-linked militants, mostly in the strategic town of Lawder in Abyan province, killed 127 people.
  • Iran said it uncovered an Israeli "terror and sabotage network", a claim that Israel called "baseless" and a statement typical of Iran ahead of the upcoming nuclear talks scheduled for Saturday.
  • Renewed unrest in Bahrain may cause the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix set for April 22.
  • Egypt's suspension of the constituent assembly will very likely change the transition timetable with the presidential elections coming before the drafting of a new constitution. 

Arguments & Analysis

'To stop the killing, deal with Assad' (Asli U. Bali and Aziz F. Rana, The New York Times)

Ultimately, the best way to reduce violence is to pursue negotiations for a political transition that would include rather than explicitly threaten the Assad government. Given the mortal fears of communities on each side of the conflict, the first goal has to be making clear that all groups have a future in a new Syria...The six-point plan offered by Kofi Annan, the United Nations intermediary, is a good starting point. But both sides have to treat a cease-fire seriously, and any arms embargo would have to apply equally to each party. Crucially, real negotiations would have to include Iran and Russia. Both have stakes in the Assad government; their involvement in an inclusive mediation process could set the stage for concessions by the government.

'Will Khamenei compromise?' (Reza Marashi & Ali Reza Eshraghi, National Interest)

"America's starting point is clear: Closing Iran's Fordo facility; halting Iranian enrichment at the 20 percent level, and removing Iran's stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium from the country. To defuse the crisis diplomatically, the United States will need to consider the political, economic and security incentives sought by Iran-and the protection of human rights sought by the Iranian people-that any negotiated solution would have to address. This does not imply that concessions must be made to Iran on each of these three fronts. Only sustained diplomacy can determine whether it is in America's interest to address Iranian concerns."

'Special report: In Egypt's military, a march for change' (Marwa Awad, Reuters)

On a warm Wednesday morning last October, around 500 Egyptian army officers based at the Air Defence Institute on the outskirts of Alexandria staged a mini revolt...According to a lieutenant colonel with direct knowledge of the protest, the men were angry about the punishment given to a fellow officer by his superiors. After refusing to train, the officers demanded to meet either Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's military and in effect the country's acting president, or his second in command. They wanted to meet the commanders, they said, to make the case for better treatment...The rebellion, unreported before now and confirmed by three other officers in the unit, lasted several days. As Egyptians were calling for quicker and deeper change - demands directed at the military council that runs the country -- at least one part of the country's military was itself split.

'A monarchical affair: from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula' (Samia Errazzouki, Jadaliyya)

Through a combination of efforts across the political and economic spheres, Morocco succeeded in temporarily postponing the inevitable wave of dissent. The Gulf monarchies provided a comfortable cushion for the Moroccan monarchy, while boosting the confidence of the regime's allies both within and beyond Morocco's borders. However, Morocco's income inequalities remain the highest in the region, along with a staggering 56.1% illiteracy rate. Morocco can seek temporary economic assistance through aid packages from the Gulf, but all this succeeds in doing is nurturing a dependent and weak economy still coping with the obstacles of post-colonial development. Meanwhile, Morocco's commitment to democratization has stalled with consistent cases of arbitrary arrestspolitically-motivated trials, and ongoing protests met with repression. This only shows that the constitutional reforms have done little to change the social reality of Moroccans, and the Gulf monarchies have no intention of challenging Morocco's approach to addressing popular grievances. Instead, the Gulf monarchies have rewarded Morocco with billion-dollar aid packages, investment, and an increasingly stronger political alliance.

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

The Kurdish dimension to Turkey's Syria policy

As escalating numbers of Syrians flee across the Turkish border to escape President Bashar al-Assad's brutality, Turkey is stepping up diplomatic efforts to exert increased international pressure on the regime. While the international community is inclined to give Assad more time to implement Kofi Annan's peace plan, Turkey feels that the urgency of the situation demands immediate action. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have further escalated after shots fired across the border wounded four people in Turkey's Kilis refugee camp and Syrian forces and Free Syrian Army fighters clashed over control of a nearby border gate. On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey would enact measures against the Assad regime if Damascus fails to abide by an April 10 deadline to cease violence. He did not outline what specific steps his government would take, but the likely scenario being floated by the press includes setting up a buffer zone along the border to protect refugees. No matter how Turkey responds to the Syrian crisis, however, it will not easily extract itself from the ongoing turmoil that the country is likely to experience in the months and years ahead. Syria's geopolitical proximity, its Kurdish minority, and the economic, cultural, and strategic cooperation between the two countries raise the stakes for Turkey in finding a swift and sustainable resolution to the Syrian crisis.  

Syria occupies a central place in Turkey's regional and domestic calculations for several reasons. Regionally, Syria has been a key component of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Domestically, engagement with the Syrian regime ensured Syrian cooperation on Turkey's three-decade fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Assad's brutal crackdown on his own people, however, forced Turkey to cut ties with its one-time ally and altered Turkey's strategic calculations. Deteriorating security conditions in Syria, coupled with suspicions of Assad's support for the PKK, have made the Kurdish issue the focal point in Turkey's Syria policy. Nervous about spillover effects of the Syrian crisis, Turkish strategists lost no time in gaming out possible scenarios for Syria and how each might impact Turkey and its Kurdish question.

There are several scenarios for how the Syrian crisis might unfold. If Assad does not fall soon and somehow reasserts his control, Turkey might face several challenges. The most critical challenge would be posed by a strengthened PKK-Syria alliance. The deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations has already reawakened the mutual interest of Damascus and the PKK in using each other against Ankara. The Assad regime has granted several concessions to the PKK since Ankara cut ties with Assad. Saleh Muslim, the head of the PKK in Syria who lived for years in Iraq's Qandil Mountains, was allowed to return to Syria, marking the beginning of a new era in PKK-Syria relations, which had been suspended for 13 years since PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's expulsion from Syria in 1998. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK offshoot in Syria, was allowed to operate freely, recruit new fighters for its campaign against Turkey, and undertake a pseudo-governmental role in Kurdish regions of Syria. In return, the PYD used its influence on Syrian Kurds to prevent their participation in the uprising. On several instances, the PYD harshly criticized the opposition Syrian National Council, called Kurds who joined the opposition "collaborators," and even attacked anti-regime demonstrators in Efrin and Aleppo. If the Assad regime survives, at least for a while, Damascus will continue to tolerate the PKK presence in Syria, which will make Turkey's fight against the PKK more arduous.

Assad's continued rule also carries the risk of the "PKK-ization" of the Kurdish opposition in Syria. Currently, Syria's Kurds are fragmented over their stance on joining the anti-Assad opposition and their status in the post-Assad era. This fragmentation weakens moderate Kurdish groups' hand and prevents their proactive participation in the uprising. If they continue to limit themselves to being mere spectators to the unfolding crisis, they may find themselves deprived of any long-term political gains in a post-Assad Syria, a development that will strengthen the PKK/PYD faction within Syria's Kurds. This matters for Turkey for several reasons. There are significant cultural, linguistic, and historical ties between Kurds in Syria and Turkey, as well as ideological affinities. Over one third of the PKK members, for instance, are of Syrian origin. The lengthy PKK presence in Syria under Hafez al Assad allowed organizational networks to emerge between the PKK and Syrian Kurdish parties. Therefore, radicalization within Syria's Kurdish political movement might have a similar impact on Turkey's Kurds.

Another challenge posed by continued Assad rule would be the increasing number of Syrian refugees on Turkey's southern border. There are already more than 25,000 Syrian refugees living on the Turkish border, and Assad's sustained grip on power will only exacerbate the refugee onslaught. Turkey fears that the refugee influx might contain PKK members and sympathizers settling in Kurdish cities along the Turkish border, and therefore radicalize the Kurdish political movement within Turkey. In an attempt to prevent PKK infiltration through Syrian refugees, Turkey stepped up the border patrols, increased the number of security personnel on the border, and issued ID cards for refugees.

If and when Assad leaves, however, Turkey will have more leverage over the new Syrian government. No matter who comes to power, Turkey-Syria cooperation against the PKK will be strengthened due to several factors. First, Turkey hosted the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and over 20,000 Syrian refugees who fled Assad's violent crackdown and has been at the forefront of international efforts to pressure Assad to leave power. Second, considering the poor economic state of Syria due to a sharp drop in consumption, capital outflow, cancelled investments, and massive cash withdrawals, the Syrian economy will be desperate for investment from Turkey, a country with which Syria enjoyed close trade relations before the Arab spring. This dependency will force the new Syrian government to cooperate with Turkey in its fight against the PKK.

Additionally, a Muslim Brotherhood government in post-Assad Syria will be particularly sympathetic to the AKP. Ali al-Bayanouni, the head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2010, and the current leader Muhammed Riad al Shaqfa declared their willingness to adopt the "AKP model" recently. The Turkish government's relatively early engagement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood reinforced the possibility of future collaboration between the two. As early as April 2011, long before Turkey asked Assad to step down, a press conference condemning the Assad regime was held in Istanbul by important Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Gazi Misirli, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader who has been living in Turkey and who has Turkish citizenship. A Muslim Brotherhood government would work closely with Turkey against the PKK.

The Syrian crisis poses a challenge to Turkey economically, strategically, and politically, but the main issue for Turkey in Syria remains the status of the Kurds. Any unrest among Syria's Kurdish population or the prospect of autonomy is Turkey's worst nightmare. The PYD in Syria calls for autonomy of the Kurdish regions, but Syrian Kurds' reluctance to join the anti-Assad movement is likely to prevent any political gains for them once Assad is gone. The Syrian National Council has given some assurances to Kurds, but Burhan Ghalioun, the chairman of the SNC, made it clear that full-fledged federalism would not be accepted. Discontent from the Syrian Kurdish community in the post-Assad era remains a possible scenario, however, if the new Syrian government maintains a grudge against the Kurds for not supporting the revolution.

Turkey cannot afford a protracted civil war in Syria. Given the prospect of an enhanced PKK threat and a mass influx of Syrian refugees across its border, the stakes for Turkey in resolving the Syrian conflict are extremely high. Given the international community's demonstrated lack of consensus on diplomatic intervention and lack of appetite for military involvement, Turkey may be forced to direct the effort toward curbing the Assad regime. That includes the prospect of sending Turkish troops to the border, something it has been reluctant to consider. The crisis in Syria will put Ankara's much-touted regional influence to the test. How it responds to this test remains to be seen.

Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

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