The Syrian army’s violent campaign against the uprising, despite the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, invited ever escalating criticism from Turkey and the international community. While previously criticized for being ineffective in its approach toward the Baath regime’s operations, Turkey recently emerged at the forefront of the international efforts to bring an end to the killing of civilians.
Since the spread of the popular protests into Syria, Turkish leaders have entertained the idea that they could use the collegial ties they had forged with Basher Assad as leverage in dealing with the unfolding civil war. For some time, they sought to reach out to Assad, seeking to counsel him to cease the use of violence. The Baath regime’s deployment of the army to suppress the uprising and shelling of cities by heavy weaponry triggered a harsher reaction from Turkey.
By May, Turkish leaders progressively adopted critical rhetoric, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling on Assad to initiate comprehensive political reforms. At the same time, over ten thousand refugees fleeing from Syria took shelter in Turkey, while many Syrian opposition groups chose Turkey as the venue for their meetings. Turkey was overall more reserved than the Western powers that have been advocating tougher international sanctions against Damascus. Granted, Ankara’s vocal criticism of the rising number of civilian deaths and permitting the operation of the Syrian opposition groups drew the ire of the Baath regime (EDM, June 7).
The real stress on the bilateral relationship was exerted by the recent killings. The Syrian Army’s brutal crackdown since the start of Ramadan angered Turkish leaders, as well as the Turkish public. For many Turks, the killing of the people leaving a mosque on the first night of Ramadan was already a tipping point. The Syrian Army’s recent operations in Hama, which had been the scene of a massacre by Hafez Assad thirty years ago, caused uproar in Turkey.
Erdogan expressed the rising Turkish disappointment with these developments. After noting that his patience with Syria was running out, Erdogan said that he would send Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus to resolutely deliver Turkey’s messages that Ankara would withdraw its support if the bloodshed continued. Erdogan also reiterated his earlier point that he considered Syria’s situation as a domestic issue for Damascus, not a foreign policy issue for Ankara (Anadolu Ajansi, August 6).
While critical statements echoing Erdogan were also issued by other Turkish leaders, the Syrian side rebuked Erdogan. Bouthina Shaaban, the presidential political and media advisor, argued that if Davutoglu goes to Damascus, “he will hear a firmer reply regarding the Turkish stance,” adding that Syria will reject interference in their domestic affairs through regional or international attempts. More importantly, Shaaban criticized Turkey for failing to “condemn the brutal killings and crimes committed by armed terrorist groups against civilians, the military and police members until now” (www.sana.sy, August 7).
As such, the Syrian side continued to present a different account of the ongoing situation, putting the blame on terrorist groups with foreign support seeking to destabilize the country. According to the official account, the Syrian regime is committed to carrying out comprehensive reforms, which is thwarted by the instability caused by the armed groups. In a move to support its own claim of having a genuine reform agenda, Assad also issued legislative decrees that would change the political parties’ and the general elections’ law, allowing free elections and a more democratically representative parliament (www.sana.sy, August 4).
While Turkey had advised Assad to follow such a course at the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, it is uncertain how feasible they are at this stage, given the massive deaths since then. Such reform promises have failed to satisfy the Syrian opposition, which seems determined to avoid a solution that would not include the termination of the Baath regime.
The US and the EU have refused to accept the Syrian account and are working to forge broader international pressure. For instance, following her meeting with Davutoglu in Istanbul in mid-July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said unequivocally that the Syrian people’s demand for change was behind the developments in the country (www.skyturk.net, July 16). In response to the recent escalation of violence, Western powers further heightened their criticism, while considering initiating tougher measures. While Turkey increasingly adopted a similar interpretation of the events with that of the Western powers, it stopped short of speaking of sanctions or use of force.
Now, the criticism of Damascus is also coming from Muslim countries and the Arab League, which resulted in the withdrawal of their ambassadors to Damascus by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain (www.aljazeera.com, August 8). This development, generating regional pressure on Syria, might ease Turkey’s task of mounting forceful criticism toward Damascus ahead of Davugolu’s visit. Moreover, Turkish policy seemed to be coordinated with the US. Following Erdogan’s warning, several high-level contacts took place between Ankara and Washington. In addition to a telephone conversation between Davutoglu and Clinton, Turkish and US envoys in different capacities came together.
On Tuesday, Davutoglu held a six-hour-long meeting with Assad, which reportedly proceeded in a rather friendly atmosphere. While the Syrian news agency reported that Assad told Davutoglu he would continue to pursue “terrorists,” Davutoglu told reporters that he emphasized that a distinction should be drawn between terrorists and civilians in counter-terrorism operations, the killing of civilians must end, and reforms implemented. Davutoglu added that he conveyed Turkey’s expectations to Assad in a concrete manner and it would be up to Damascus to address Turkish concerns with the steps it would take in the next few days (Anadolu Ajansi, August 9).
However, the continuation of civilian deaths even during the Davutoglu-Assad meeting painted a grim picture as to the extent to which Damascus will deliver on the “concrete” demands made by Turkey, whose content remains uncertain. An even more uncertain question is how Turkey will react, in case Assad fails to deliver on such demands. Having invested so much of their prestige, Turkish leaders might find themselves in a difficult position to deliver on their own promises if Assad remains recalcitrant.