Bashar al-Assad has no reason to be worried about the international Istanbul conference resulting in action against him, despite its subtle name change from the “Friends of Syria” conference to the “Friends of the Syrian People” conference. The meeting was already handicapped by Russian and Chinese boycotts, Kofi Annan’s absence (his plans are still being worked out) and EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton’s last-minute no-show. Iran was not invited, while Russia, which supports Assad at least as much as Iran, was invited but boycotted.
Hillary Clinton’s participation helped Ankara partially save face. However, let us not forget that the US supports, albeit with reservations, the Annan plan, which endorses dialog with Assad. It is impossible for Assad not to be satisfied with the current situation.
An Exploited Initiative
Assad may formally approve of the Annan plan, but of course his continued attacks on civilians reveal his dishonesty. This is why Prime Minister Erdogan was justified in telling conference participants, “We hope Kofi Annan’s initiative will yield results. But the Syrian regime is likely to exploit this initiative as a way of gaining time.”
Erdogan’s statement signaled that Turkey was taking a step back. On his way to Seoul last week, Erdogan told journalists that Turkey does not approve of the plan initiated by Annan.
There is no doubt that Assad is using this plan to gain time, because tangible Russian support enables him to do so. As one of the best observers of Russian affairs, Cenk Baslamis, said on CNNTurk, “Russia will do everything possible to prevent the toppling of Assad and the Baath Party.”
In Erdogan’s address to the Friends of the Syrian People Conference, he avoided setting out a political course and did not go beyond expressing distress over the continued killings of civilians in Syria. He invited the international community to develop consensus in their reactions. “At this point we do not even say the same things. We have to achieve unity of action,” he said.
A Divided International Community
But the international community is at present divided, which means that Erdogan’s call for “united action” —including the possibility of direct or indirect military action against Assad—is not in the cards.
It is no secret that Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, favors arming the Syrian opposition. However, Russia and Iran oppose this plan. Moscow has announced that it will not take military action on behalf of Assad, but it will continue to ship weapons to Syria as stipulated by their military agreements.
Tehran’s military and logistical support to Assad has been well known for some time. Arming the opposition may lead to a proxy war between foreign powers, which will only increase the bloodshed and complications in Syria.
Assad will obviously be the eventual loser if he prolongs the current situation. But now he is in effect saying, “If I go, I will take you all down with me.” This is how he defies his enemies, including Turkey.
In the meantime the US and the EU, uncertain of the repercussions should Assad fall, appear willing to work with him in one way or another. There are claims that Washington and Moscow have already agreed on this approach.
The bottom line is that the Syrian situation is bad for Turkey, from whatever angle we view it. Ordinary people in Turkey are increasingly asking, “Why is Syria our business? How did we get so tangled up in this mess?” As uncertainty over Syria grows, this type of reaction will grow as well.