Monday, January 23, 2012

Is There any Hope for a Peaceful Transition in Syria?: Turkey-Russia-Iran Initiative for Syria

Spread to Syria on March 15, 2011, public demonstrations are about to reach their anniversary. The violence in the country is going on in the country incrementally and the development of the process is not fostering optimistic expectations for the stability in the country. In the first period of the public demonstrations, big masses were making demonstrations spontaneously, without a leader or organization, and most importantly, by not using violence as a means in showing their disapproval of the Assad regime. However, public demonstrations in Syria gained a new dimension and the opposition started to demonstrate armed resistance. This resistance, while it used to be uncoordinated and fragmented, is getting more organized day by day. The military opposition operating with fragmentations but collectively in emotions and sentiments under the umbrella of Free Syrian Army is getting more and more powerful. There are two main signs of empowerment. The first of them is the enhancement in the capacity of attacks. In Syria, not only the civil population is dying any more. Each day, in Syrian Official New Agency SANA, there is news on funerals of Syrian soldiers. Moreover, there are attacks as organized and coordinated as the ones that can be arranged by professional soldiers to the Syrian security bases. The attack made to the Air Forces Intelligence located Harasta suburb in Damascus can be cited as an example. The second data that reveals that the Free Syrian Army is getting empowered is the increase in the quantity and quality of its members. Brigadier Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh in charge of the intelligence of the northern side of the Syrian Army fled from the army and sought shelter in Turkey and he declared that he joined the Free Syrian Army. Al-Sheikh is the highest-level officer that passed to the military opposition. Al-Sheikh, in the statement that he gave, indicated that the number of the soldiers within the Free Syrian Army reached to 20-25 thousand. Although this number seems exaggerated, Riad Assad had stated that the number was between 10-15 thousand before. Therefore, one can observe an increase in the quality and quantity. The involvement of high-level officers into the Syrian army is of great importance, as they know the structure and the fighting techniques of the Syrian army. Hence, they could be more effective in developing new counter techniques. In his speech, al-Sheikh expressed that “if they get 20 thousand people ready by dividing them into groups of 6 or 7 for a guerilla war, they can destroy the Syrian army in one or one and a half years”. What is more, as he was in charge of intelligence in the Northern part, he could share information that could put the regime into a problem.

Apart from the armed dimension the demonstrations in Syria gained, international and regional pressure is also increasing with each passing day. The US and EU are waiting for the Arab Union process to result. At this point, the aim is to exhaust the Arab Union option and reach a consensus over Syria. Probably, the studies of the Arab Union observer delegation will not be fruitful and the Arab countries will not take a step back in their decision to apply sanctions.

The Syrian administration is striving to gain some time during this process. Here, it can be said to target two things. Firstly, during the time that it will gain, it will try to establish legitimacy, that it does not have, through the exertion of power. In 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and lastly in 1980s, Hama and Humus-based insurgencies had been surpassed in the same way. The administration thinks that it could surpass the demonstrations over time by using force by showing the reflexes in the past. Having some further time serves for a second aim for the administration. Apart from the ones that support the regime in Syria totally, there is a side that is not very happy with administration, yet thinks worse about the other alternatives. The main reasoning of the idea of these groups is based on concerns that a situation might occur like in Iraq and Libya, the process may end up with occupation and the West that is not favored at all would settle in their countries. The idea that the instability would evolve into a civil war paves the way for these sides to move to the administration side. In this context, it is possible to argue that the regime succeeded for itself. Currently, the demonstrations are confined to the provinces where the Sunni Arab population constitutes the majority like Humus, Hama, Dara and Idlib. The demonstrations do not turn into a countrywide phenomenon. The Kurds that had insurgent movements in the beginning have not involved in demonstrations in the recent period. In the South, the Druzes did not go to the opposition camp, except for small incidents. The support of the Christians is going on. Therefore, the regime limited the revolts to certain regions, social groups and political movements. With the limitation of the revolts to Sunni Arab regions and political Islamist groups, one prevents the enlargement of the opposition and the spread of the revolts to the whole country. Considering this, it is possible to argue that the lifetime of the regime will not be short and it may take 2 years as Brigadier al-Sheikh indicates.

When one looks at this picture and makes an evaluation from the perspective of Turkey, it is possible to assert that the process holds vital risks. As a matter of fact, the main expectation of Turkey from Syria is “stability” and “democracy” for a permanent stability. However, instability is observed to go on for a while incrementally. The more problematic situation is the possibility of generation of a worse case due to a regime change. The problem from the perspective of Turkey is the realization of its two main expectations from Syria, namely, “stability and democracy”. Turkey, starting from the inception of the demonstrations in Syria, has been striving hard for a peaceful transition; however, after some time, with the despondency on the Syrian administration, it started to implement pressure and isolation policies. At this point, one can ask this question from the perspective of Turkey: “Is there still any hope for a peaceful transition in Syria?” because a drastic collapse of the regime, all the possibilities such as external intervention incorporate new risks from new Syria for security, politics and economy of Turkey.

Before anything else, a change in Syria is inevitable. Turkey’s standing against this change movement is not a convenient option in terms of realpolitik nor is it legitimate. Therefore, what is argued in this paper is not to remain opposed to the change, but to develop a recommendation on how to execute this change because new dynamics that may emerge with a sudden regime change in Syria might not produce a democratic political structure. The main foundation of this approach is the picture depicted by the historical experiences in the Middle East and the central authority revealing that the state apparatus is weak. These are Lebanon in which the central authority is weak historically and Iraq that collapsed with all its state institutions after US intervention and that has a weak central authority. These examples are quite striking in terms of demonstrating the possibilities of the cases that may emerge in case the regime in Syria collapses suddenly.

The political and social outcomes of the abovementioned examples can be categorized under 5 sections. The first outcome is “ethnic-denominational struggles and civil war”. One can cite the struggles between Shiite-Sunni and Arab-Kurd communities in Iraq after 2003 as an example. When we look at Lebanon, one can use the struggles between the Muslims and the Christians since the very beginning of establishment, and the civil war between different religious groups starting from 1975 till 1990 as examples. The highest possibility in Syria is the probable struggle to occur between the Sunni and Arab Alawi communities between which there exists historical distrust. Another possibility is the Arab-Kurd struggles as revealed by 2004 Qamisli incident.

The second outcome is political instability and emergence of weak governments. Looking from the perspective of political instability, the election periods in Iraq after 2003 are quite problematic and even if the election is finalized, the establishment of a government may take a lot of time. Similarly, in Lebanon, governments are established very difficultly and their lifespan may be quite short. Thus, political processes in Syria may have similarities with the aforementioned countries.

The third outcome is external intervention and being prone to influences. Lebanon since its independence and Iraq since 2003 has become the playing field for regional and other powers. As there is no powerful central authority, each social group or political group are in search for foreign actors to gain support in a way to enhance their position in the country. In other words, the vacuum in the center is filled by external powers. Sudden collapse of the regime in Syria may result in similar situations.

The fourth outcome is the emergence of federalism and failure in protecting territorial and political unity. As to federalism, Iraq in post-intervention provides a really striking example. The Iraqi Kurds legalized the de facto autonomy they gained after 1991 following the 2003 intervention. Federal regional demands were not confined to the North, some of the provinces in the South and Centre still ask for establishing their own regions. Iraq has become a federal country officially, and with the withdrawal of the US soldiers, one can observe the possibility of the risk that one would not protect the territorial integration and the disintegration would appear on the agenda. One should indicate that the federal structure in Syria has a historical background and there is an appropriate social structure in line with this political structure. Syria, during the mandate of France, was fragmented into Damascus Government, Aleppo Government, Arab Alawi Government and Druze Government. Today, the collapse of the central authority may pave the way for the actions of centrifugal powers. Local politics and authorities may gain power. It is possible that Arab Alawis, Druzes and the Kurds may become prominent to establish regions in the “New Syria”.

Last but not least, beside state authority non-state armed forces or terrorist organizations may find safe havens within the aforementioned countries. From this regard, when we look at Lebanon, we can see Hezbollah as more powerful than the national army. When we look at Iraq, it is seen that even though they are legal, while the Kurds have peshmarga forces, the Shiite have armed militia that are independent from state. Apart from these, terrorist organizations can find safe fields from themselves as well. To illustrate, after 2003, al-Qaida in Iraq and PKK terrorist organization in Northern Iraq have found safe havens for them. The sudden collapse of the national army and security forces in Syria like the one in Ba’ath in Iraq will result in armament of all groups for self-defense. In Syria, current armed institutions will be seeking ways for maintaining their positions through illegitimate ways. Other ethnic and denominational groups that are striving for maintaining their safety will want to establish armed militia forces as well. The statement of the PKK leader Murat Karayilan to the Syrian Kurds that “develop your core defense and get armed” can be thought within this context. The chaotic environment in Syria may lead to the establishment of new fighting fields for the Salafi groups and PKK. The foundation of this foresight is that the Salafi groups have a foundation, albeit not a very strong one, in Syria and PKK is quite effective among the Syrian Kurds.

This negative picture carries risks for Turkey because expecting stability and democracy in Syria, Turkey may face a Syria that has security problems, has a hard time in providing stability, has a risk of being fragmented, serves a place for terrorist organizations, has the longest border with Turkey and becomes a place where lots of countries try to implement their own interests. Turkey, so as to provide stability in “New Syria” will work further and spend lots of efforts as it is now doing for Iraq and Lebanon. Political instability, weak state will ruin the security environment and the wave of violence may affect the border regions of Turkey as well. The lack of security will bring about economic risks as well and more importantly, social, political and economic integration process will not be realized.

However, on the other hand, the revolts in Syria reached to such a level that the collapse of the Assad regime will become a source of instability in the country as much as it does if the administration goes on. Therefore, it is evident that the status quo is not sustainable in Syria. The most preferred way from the perspective of Turkey is “peaceful transformation to democracy”. Its somehow realization will minimize the risks created by the sudden collapse of the regime and the survival of the regime without any changes. However, this possibility is getting more and more difficult with the nonnegotiable attitude of the Syrian administration. Indeed, the decision makers in Turkish foreign policy had strived hard to realize this from the very beginning; however, it did not succeed owing to Syria’s not taking a step back.

However, there is one last option to be exhausted before one moves to pressuring and isolationist policies. Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu, in the statement he made in television channel, indicated that “there is hope, albeit very little, for a peaceful transformation”. A peaceful transformation in Syria is possible only through a realization of a transformation package implemented and led by the Assad administration. At this point, the communication channels between Turkey and Syria are closed to a great extent. Even if the communication is provided, it is not possible for Syria to take the statements of Turkey into consideration from now on. As of this moment, there is only two actors left that could make a change in the policies of the Syrian administration. They are Russia and Iran. The Syrian regime is aware of the fact that without the support of these two countries, it would not survive. Russia’s continuing in providing arm support, revealing its deterrence by sending war ships to Tartus Harbor and giving veto on the decisions regarding Syria in the United Nations Security Council are of great importance for the Assad administration. Besides, Iran, as well, demonstrated that it was in the side of the Syrian administration totally and supporting the suppression of the incidents through the use of force. In Iraq and Lebanon, Iranians give the signs that they will use all their advantages in favour of Syria in the region. All this support is of vital significance for the Assad administration. Therefore, taking satisfactory steps from the side of the administration regarding a change can only be provided with Russian and Iranian pressure. Neither Russia nor Iran want instability in Syria to result in a case like in Libya in which one ended up with international intervention. In the environment where it was understood that the current situation is not sustainable, the most convenient option is to develop a new regional initiative from the perspective of Turkey, Russia and Iran. In the initiative of Turkey, Russia and Iran, one will exclude the approaches wishing to destroy the regime by using all kinds of military interventions of the USA and EU. On the other hand, one will admit that Syria’s nonnegotiable position is not sustainable. Under the control of the Syrian administration, in the political field, one will create spaces for the real opposition. The Assad administration will be leading a change that will satisfy the opposition beyond taking showpiece steps. Turkey will be attempting to persuade the Syrian opposition during that process. The biggest risk in this initiative is that Syrian political opposition does not have a real power over the insurgent Syrians. Therefore, it is suspicious how different position the Syrians wanting the regime to change totally and making demonstrations on the streets every day would be compelled to take.

Even if this process fails, it will provide benefits from a few perspectives. In the position of Russia and Iran regarding Syria, there will be changes before the initiative. By removing the unconditional support, “total consensus” that Turkey wishes to observe can be reached. Apart from that, negative impacts created due to the Syria matter on Turkey-Russia and Turkey-Iran relations can be minimized.

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