Replace “demonstrators” and “supporters” with “Bosnians” and “Croats,” and Assad with Slobodan Milosevich and Radovan Karadzic; put Russia in the background and Israel in the neighborhood instead of Greece, and there you have a brutal historical time repeated almost to the letter -- the game of bloodshed restaged with the same sort of helpless powers in the audience.
Yet a deadline is a deadline. If Damascus continues to play with time with clear disregard, it will have to face the consequences. But what will they be? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mention of a “new phase” is insufficient to hints at that. But it is apparent that Ankara has noted and reacted toughly against shooting across the border into its territory, leaving no doubt that it sees this as an act of aggression. Add to this the fact that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu cut short his visit to China, and we are all in the midst of escalation, surrounded by ambiguities.
It was reported that Davutoğlu had “assured” his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that Turkey would refrain from acting “unilaterally” at this stage of the conflict. One can also take as granted that Ankara, in the same breath, repeated its demand that Moscow clearly tell Assad to stop his military action and pull out of the towns he has continued to shell.
But few, if anybody, trust that Assad, in a credible, convincing manner, will comply with the UN plan. Then what? This places Turkey in the middle of the puzzle -- a puzzle that is becoming more complex.
Can Turkey take the lead with “new steps”? From the removed perspective of the West, it looks rather easy to conclude that a powerful NATO ally could and should. But it is certainly much more complicated than it looks. The recent escalation of the conflict, the influx of thousands of refugees and the tense military build-up along the 910 kilometer border have started to bring to the surface the sectarian and ethnic divides in Turkey, just as they have done in Lebanon.
Although the majority in Turkey clearly detests what is being done by the Baathists against the mainly Sunni civilian opposition in Syria, many within the Alawite segment here (some 15 percent of the population) do not hide their concern, not to mention sympathy, for the Nusayri-based regime. These sentiments reflect on and influence the local bases of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as far-left parties, many of which have Alawite or Turkish members whose ideologies do not stray far from that of Baathism.
Another major concern that restrains Ankara from acting on its own is the Kurds. Although a little more than half of Turkey’s 13-14 million Kurds support the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the rest are staunchly behind the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Recent data seem to strengthen the presumption that the PKK -- whose higher echelons, up to 40 percent, consist of Syrian Kurds who are sympathetic to Assad -- will enter in on the side of the Baathist forces to stir up havoc in the Kurdish parts of Syria, whipping up violence against the Turkish side and dragging Turkey in.
But what if Syrian forces repeat the recent cross-border shootings and confirm Ankara’s perception that its territory is being subjected to aggression? Again, if common sense prevails in Ankara -- as it has so far -- such an act would have to be brought to the tables of NATO, evoking its charter. Turkey will not, and should not, be left to act unilaterally -- unless the West wants the entire region to tumble into hell. Pushing Turkey alone as a “fixer” would be equivalent to jumping into the abyss along with it.
What remains is what Rami Khouri and other keen observers suggest: While not leaving diplomacy aside, intensely arm the opposition in line with an argument of self-defense. I hesitantly agree with Khouri: It is not a desirable option, but the only one -- but only if Assad continues the massacre and driving people into exile.
Once you get to the stage of systematically arming the opposition, you face great risks. As it was put by Safa Hussein in Lebanon’s The Daily Star, a general and member of Iraq’s National Security Council, “a divided Syria would become an arena for an Iranian-Saudi struggle [reflecting Shiite-Sunni tensions]. Syria would slide to the edge of civil war as Iraq did in the period between 2004 and 2007. But with no decisive third-party forces in the country as was the case in Iraq, escalation to full-scale civil war similar to Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s seems very probable. The main side effect of such a scenario is that the majority of the rebels would become increasingly radical, allowing Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria. This in turn would determine the shape of post-Assad Syria. … If extremists dominate the post-Assad government, or if Syria becomes a failed state, then the risk of a jihadist revival in this area threatening the stability of Iraq would be very real.”