Turkey and the Arab League have symmetry on Syria

Saying that Bashar al Assad, Syria’s beleaguered leader, has painted himself into a very tight corner would be an under-statement.

Nothing could, perhaps, put a sharper focus on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing predicament than the fact that his cornered and increasingly harassed regime celebrated the 41st anniversary of the Baathist (people’s) revolution the very same day that the Arab League Foreign Ministers, meeting in Morocco, turned yet another tight screw on it and served it with a virtual ultimatum to come to senses within 72 hours or face unspecified retribution. The League’s near-unanimous verdict, with 19 of its 22 member states voting for it (only Sudan and Lebanon voted against it, while Iraq didn’t vote) gave Assad just 72 hours to accept the presence of 500 League observers on the Syrian soil, or face sanctions. Earlier, on November 12, the League had suspended Syria from its membership.

November 16, 1970, was the day when Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, had pulled off a remarkably successful military coup d’etat to install Syria’s first-and perhaps last-’revolutionary’ regime in power. That regime held fast under his guile and cunning but is teetering on the verge of collapse under his son and anointed successor.

Hafez al-Assad was a wily man and survived a great many challenges to his rule with the cunning of a fox. His son is not a patch on the legendary father who was a born fighter. True that Bashar was a reluctant recruit when he was drafted into succeeding his father upon the accidental death of his brother and Assad’s favourite son, Basil. But the ‘reluctant recruit’ now seems to be aggravating his own problem by hanging on to his job in the face of a massive backlash against it by his own people.

It isn’t just a coincidence that as Assad’s fortunes have been buffeting because of the people’s uprising against his rule, those of a next-door neighbour, in Turkey, have been rising in a steadily climbing graph.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is, without doubt, the most popular and charismatic leader of the Turks since Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s founding-father. Erdogan, until not too long ago, was also a principal mentor and supporter of Bashar al-Assad. His government, that came to power in 2003 with a massive ‘yes’ vote of the Turkish people, pursued a policy of patronage and encouragement toward Bashar and his regime. Erdogan provided incentives to Bashar to open up his economic policies, which he believed would be a first step in the direction of a democratic system taking hold in Syria, just as it had in other countries where market economy flourished.

However, as Assad’s star began to wane in the face of his people’s vociferous cry for freedom, Erdogan lost little time before changing his tune in regard to Assad’s regime and, soon enough, became its most notable critic. He lamented, publicly, the Assad regime’s aversion to seeking a dialogue with the unhappy Syrians and, instead, opting for the use of brute force and repression to put down the people’s revolt.

Erdogan’s detractors and critics, mainly in the west, see in his volte face on the Assad regime shades of Machiavellian opportunism and accuse him of nurturing ambitions to revive the bygone Ottoman era in Turkish expansionism, especially in regard to the Arab world.

They are both right and wrong. They are right about Erdogan being an ambitious man, as most politicians are. Politics is, after all, a game of ambition and those without it don’t go very far in their vocation. But Erdogan’s ambitions are of a democrat who has risen to power on the strength of the Turkish people’s openly expressed will to be led by him. His track record defies any non-democratic ambition. He, in fact, has earned the respect of his people by clipping the wings of Turkey’s egregious and Bonapartist generals, cutting them to size and putting them to their place in the barracks where they belong.

As for his alleged hankering to revive the old glory of the Ottoman era in Turkish foreign policy, the west has itself to blame. Major players within EU-France, Germany et al-have blatantly been thwarting Turkey’s ambition to join EU on one flimsy excuse after another. They have been raising the qualification bar for a Turkey which has now the second healthiest economy in Europe after Germany, while pauper states of the erstwhile Soviet bloc have been admitted with obscene haste and insufficient scrutiny.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that European reservations and ‘excuses’ on Turkey’s membership bid of what’s, essentially, a ‘Christian Club’ have religious and cultural overtones. Europe’s historic animosity to Islam and Muslims is being dressed into platonic catch-phrases to keep Turkey at bay in its quest to become part of EU.

Turkey, in terms of its economic buoyancy and political clout, is today at a stage where it does no longer need to belong to Europe. Its robust economy must haunt Europe’s ailing economies like Greece, Spain and Italy. Gone are the days when Turkey used to be derided as the sick man of Europe; that sobriquet is now richly deserving of EU’s sick giants.

But Turkey must belong somewhere. The Arab world is the natural backyard for it to flex its new and powerful muscles and assert its status of a new regional power. If one suspects shades of Ottoman glory in this coveted role, so be it. After all, Turkey belongs to ME on the basis of its religious moorings as well as centuries of political interaction with the Arab world, as well as with ancient Persia-today’s Iran.

Erdogan, Turkey’s new Sultan, as some naysayers wish to critique him, has eased his country into the role of a pro-active ally of the Arab masses by landing his government at the centre of Arab uprisings against tyrannical rulers. Erdogan has championed the people’s crusades against tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia and, most notably, Libya, with as much enthusiasm and gusto as he’d evinced while he ushered in genuine democracy in his own country by standing up to aggrandizing generals and their political ambitions.

Erdogan’s trenchant denunciation of Assad’s brutal suppression of the Syrian people’s demand for democracy is befitting his role of a champion of democratic rights. It’s like charity that must first be practiced at home and then outside of it. That’s exactly Erdogan’s way in regard to Syria in revolt against Bashar’s Stalinist rule.

Turkey under Erdogan’s spirited leadership has been steadily increasing the heat on Bashar al Assad to desist from walking the full length of the plank that, undoubtedly, could lead to his downfall and the plunging of Syria into total chaos.

In the latest instance-in response to Assad’s continued foot-dragging on the Arab League’s collective demand that he stop the bloodshed and start a dialogue with the opposition-Erdogan has bleakly warned Assad that his ‘days were numbered.’ Mincing no words, he added: “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, doesn’t enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

Erdogan’s concern is focused not only on the huge loss of human lives in Syria-the toll of those killed at the hands of the regime’s brutal security forces is believed to be in excess of 3500 in nearly 8 months of the conflict. He is also acting on his concern to help the Syrians find an alternative to the Baathist regime that has been in un-interrupted power for well over 4 decades. Turkey is playing host to the Syrian National Council-a motley group of politicians and factions opposed to Assad and given to democratic rule in Syria. Besides that, armed opposition to the Assad regime has found refuge on the Turkish soil, across the border with Syria. This resistance group, whose strength is still subject to conjecture, is led by one Riad Al Assad, said to be a formerly senior officer of the Syrian army.

That the Arab League is in lock-step with Erdogan in holding Bashar’s feet to the fire is not so surprising but must add to Bashar al Assad’s worries about his wobbly rule and his slipping grip over power.

The Arab League was as good as a poodle of Arab tyrants and potentates until it saw a chance to redeem itself in the esteem of Arab masses on the Libyan crisis. There the hereditary and non-democratic rulers of affluent Gulf States-Qatar and UAE, in particular-who have allowed precious few freedoms to their own people unabashedly donned the mantle of oppressed people’s votaries to go after Qaddafi.

Of course these wealthy Arab states happened to be faithful servants of the west, in particular of US, and were given the green light to target the Qaddafi regime, which was not only tyrannical enough to deserve punishment but was led by a man who had always been a pariah to the west.

Turkey was the only non-Arab Muslim state that stood four-square behind the Arab League in its manoeuvres to liberate the Libyans from Qaddafi’s iron clutches.

Erdogan’s priorities in lending his support to the NATO military operations against the Qaddafi regime were exactly the same as they are today, vis-à-vis the Assad regime. He’d tried to reason with Qaddafi, in the initial stages of the conflict, just as he’s still trying to convince Assad of the logic of his support for the oppressed Syrian people. But when Qaddafi failed to match his enthusiasm for a peaceful end to the conflict, Erdogan was left with no other choice but to throw his weight behind the NATO expedition.

The Arab League, however, suffered real embarrassment by compromising its status of an all-Arab organization by giving a free run to NATO in Libya. The success of the Libyan operation brought no kudos to the League as it was seen by many as an underling and unabashed apologist of the west.

An Arab League-Turkey nexus on Syria would not only save the League the embarrassment of letting in, or inviting, NATO to meddle in the Syrian imbroglio in a reprise of Libya; it would also save NATO the embarrassment of putting its imperialist  on the soil of yet another Muslim state. Turkey is quite capable, on its own, to snuff the remaining life out of the rapidly emaciating Assad regime at an affordable cost. With the Arab League standing shoulder to shoulder with Turkey, Erdogan’s task of helping the oppressed Syrians would have a guaranteed stamp of legitimacy and collective effort.

That’s what Erdogan wants. Helping the neighbouring Syrian people in their epic struggle against a brutal regime makes all the sense in the world to Erdogan. He would   simply be re-enacting for the Syrian masses exactly what he did for his own people. His crusade to end the long night of the Turkish generals’ meddling in Turkish politics was a sterling success; he isn’t wrong in believing that fellow Muslims and neighbours, in Syria, deserve the very same and mustn’t be left to the caprice and brutality of the Assad regime.

There’s no denying that standing up for the rights of the Syrians would establish Turkey’s credentials of a defender of oppressed people’s democratic rights beyond doubt. The pro-active presence of Turkish Foreign Minister, Davutoglu, at the Moroccan conclave of the League, last November 16, strongly suggested that both the League members and Turkey were on the same page in regard to what needs to be done to the Assad regime in the days ahead.

Whether Bashar al Assad is inclined to listen to pleas of sanity from his Arab ‘brothers’, as well as from Erdogan who was like an elder brother to him, until not too long ago, is another matter. But those Arab leaders who are presently portraying themselves as messiah of the oppressed Syrians should also know that the buck may not stop at Basher al Assad. Erdogan and Turkey may not flinch from rising to the side of the Qatari or Kuwaiti or any other Arab masses if they stood up, tomorrow, for their own democratic rights still being held back from them and brazenly usurped by autocratic rulers.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 December 2011 on page no. 26

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