As voices from within Syria's opposition movement increasingly call for a Turkish “civilian protection” mission in Syria's eight-month-old conflict, Turkish officials have denied speculation that Turkey is discussing a no-fly zone with opposition groups and say that peaceful methods must first be exhausted in the Syrian conflict.
“There exist no military plans between Turkey and Syrian opposition, and no plans for a Turkish move have even been discussed,” a Turkish official told Sunday's Zaman. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the fragile nature of a possible military move against Syria, insisted that a possible Turkish mission to intervene in conflict between president Bashar al-Assad and anti-regime protesters was a “one-sided” plan. The official's words come as opposition forces increasingly called for some form of outside intervention in a conflict that the UN estimates has claimed over 3,500 lives.
The official’s words come as opposition forces increasingly called for some form of outside intervention in a conflict that the UN estimates has claimed over 3,500 lives. Earlier in the week, opposition figure and member of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood Mohammad Riad Shaqfa told Reuters that the establishment of a “buffer zone” is urgently needed to dampen the ongoing violence in Syria. “If the international community procrastinates then more is required from Turkey as a neighbor to be more serious than other countries to handle this regime,” the opposition figure said earlier this week.
Opposition members have been caught in recent weeks between waiting for the slowly coalescing international effort to isolate Assad and the urgent need to find a way to halt the daily killing of protesters. “The Syrian regime is committing atrocities -- war crimes in fact -- against its own people. Because of this, our main focus now is on civilian protection by any means,” commented rights campaigner and member of the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC) Wael Mirza in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. Mirza, who supports the official non-violent stance of the SNC, a diverse coalition of anti-Assad forces, nevertheless maintains that international efforts must be focused on protecting civilians “by any means.”
For Mirza, civilian protection currently “means focusing on getting observers from the Arab League and the global media to see what is happening.” Mirza hopes that such a move would suffice to protect civilians “because the Assad regime will not be able to act as it has with so much international pressure there.” The call to admit observers from Arab League countries comes in the wake of last week’s failed ceasefire deal between Syria and the Arab League, which voted to suspend Syria’s membership on Sunday. The league did so after violence against protesters continued at the hand of Syrian security forces, which the agreement had required to vacate opposition cities and cease violence.
The Arab League now plans to send observers to Syria, demanding that the regime accept observers lest it face the league’s support for United Nations sanctions in the coming months. On Friday, a senior Syrian official told Reuters that Syria “agreed in principle to the Arab League proposal (for observers),” but opposition leaders say that such promises should be received skeptically, given the regime’s brazen violation of the ceasefire deal.
Given the possibility that the observer deal may stall or prove ineffective at stopping violence, experts say that the conflict risks a long “draw” between the international community and an entrenched regime in Damascus. In such a case, opposition members say that military interference may be the only option to stop the regime’s escalating violence against anti-Assad protesters. In such a scenario, Western countries may look to Turkey to take action against the growing conflict in its southern neighbor.
“The entire world is looking at Turkey,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview last week. “If the West and Turkey are serious about deposing Assad and bringing about a successful revolution, it is increasingly likely that somebody will go first militarily. The West wants Turkey to take on the role.” In the face of such expectations, Landis cautions against Turkish commitment, stating that even a limited commitment could draw Turkey into a war with Syria, an outcome which the expert says would be “foolish.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has hinted that Turkey would consider limited intervention in the future, remaining vague on Ankara’s exact plans but stressing to the press that “protecting citizens is the responsibility of every state.” Davutoğlu has said that Turkey will first seek diplomatic and economic measures against the regime, but stated on Friday that “other options must be evaluated later.”
Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday’s Zaman that events in Syria are critical for Ankara, given the two nations’ shared cultural history and common 1,000 kilometer border. “A heavy wave of migration might hit Turkey once the conflict between the regime and protestors spirals out of control, which could force the country into establishing a buffer zone,” Orhan said, as he described a buffer zone, which would be a “safe” territory for Syrian civilians and a haven for Syria’s growing military opposition. Orhan called the buffer zone “a new Benghazi, in a sense.”
Orhan nevertheless emphasizes that such a scenario would only be considered in extraordinary circumstances, stating that “an unstable Syria does nothing but hurt Turkey; once you open that box you never know what will come out of it.” He says that before Ankara risks any form of military interaction, “Turkey may rather utilize more political and diplomatic pressure on Syria, such as establishing an office for the SNC, and providing more coverage into the refugee camps in Hatay.” Orhan suggested that Turkey will also remain committed to securing UN support for any actions it takes in the future.
Another difficult decision for Ankara is when to enact sanctions against Damascus, a measure which Orhan also states will be deeply harmful to Turkish businesses. Orhan says the economic impact of sanctions would multiplied by the possibility that such measures would be followed by Syrian forces’ closing of a highway which is Turkey’s only land route to the greater Middle East. Orhan states that the implementation of such measures is sure to precede the last resort option of military action. “Armed conflict would be the last, last thing to do for the country,” Orhan stated.