Syria Intervention Talk as Diplomacy Withers
A year of sanctions, diplomacy and harsh rhetoric failed to stop Syria’s bloody crackdown and oust President Bashar Assad. With frustration running high, Turkey and other countries that have staked moral credibility on ending the violence are increasingly looking at intervention on Syrian soil, a strategy they have so far avoided for lack of international consensus and fears it could widen the conflict.
Diplomacy has not yet run its course, but more treacherous options, including aid to Syrian rebels, are likely to come up at a meeting of dozens of countries that oppose Assad, including the United States and its European and Arab partners, in Istanbul on April 1.
One prominent option floated by Turkey is a “buffer zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, which could amount to a foreign military occupation, intent on regime change even if the aim is humanitarian in name. The risks of such an endeavor in a combustible region are evident in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon decades ago and Syria’s own military presence in Lebanon until 2005.
Yet, comparisons with international hesitation over the Balkans bloodshed in the 1990s make it ever harder to engage in seemingly endless, and fruitless, diplomacy.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed Syria with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday at a nuclear security conference in South Korea, and said it was not possible to tolerate events there. Earlier, Erdogan was asked by reporters on his plane whether a safe zone inside Syria was on the agenda.
“Studies are under way,” Erdogan said. “It would depend on developments. The ‘right to protection’ may be put into use, according to international rules. We are trying to find a solution by engaging Russia, China and Iran.”
Erdogan predicted that “everything could change” if those countries withdraw their support for Syria, and he accused Assad of reviving ties with and “protecting” rebels of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd group at war with the Turkish state. Turkey already hosts some 17,000 Syrian refugees, and casting the Syrian crisis in terms of Turkey’s national security strengthens the case for intervention.
U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was discussing Syria on Sunday in Russia, which vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Assad but has shown increasing impatience with him. His next stop is Beijing, which also blocked U.N. action.
Annan’s plan, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide aid, and inclusive talks about a political solution.
But, there are still questions about how such an agreement would be overseen and enforced. An Arab League monitoring effort in Syria failed, labeled a farce by some who participated. The likelihood that a Syrian regime that has shelled cities would talk in good faith to the people it targeted is remote, and outgunned Syrian rebels say the time is long past for any negotiation.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died. Many were civilian protesters.
Assad bucked the trend of relatively quick transitions to new governments in regional uprisings. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped oust Moammar Gadhafi, did not bear the same geopolitical tensions as the Syrian case. The conflict there comes as Israel considers a plan to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran, a regional power and close ally of Assad, and further destabilization in Syria could set off lasting unrest.
Turkey and the United States, in an election year, “are reluctant to make more forceful moves because of the long-term costs of policing the sectarian violence that will surely happen following the collapse of the Assad regime,” said Arda Batu, professor of international relations at Yeditepe University in Istanbul and editor-in-chief of the Kalem Journal, a website about regional affairs