The Caravan

But Really—Is America Ready To See Assad Gone?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Not in a million years would I ever imagine using that headline, “Turks are from Mars, Americans are from Venus” – but that was precisely the title of my column last week [in Milliyet] on Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent visit to Washington to discuss Syria.

Risk-averse and strangely attached to the status-quo, Ankara has typically been a difficult ally for Washington—one that reluctantly supported but secretly resented U.S. interventions in the Middle East over the past decades. But a new spirit is hovering over Turkey these days. With growing regional ambitions and a relatively strong democracy, Turks are welcoming the Arab Spring more enthusiastically than anyone else in the neighborhood. Ankara’s moderately Islamist government has thrown its support for the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya early on, and after a brief experiment with diplomatic brinkmanship, Turkey has severed ties with its one-time close ally in Damascus. Last summer, Turkey opened its borders to thousands of refugees fleeing Assad’s brutal campaign and has since been sheltering opposition groups and defectors from the Syrian army.

There is no doubt that the Turks want Assad gone—sooner rather than later. It’s also the case that they do not want to do it alone—or do anything that resembles a “Turkish incursion” into the former Ottoman territories. Turkish leaders are publicly lobbying to build a coalition, preferably involving the Arab League, to facilitate the collapse of the regime in Syria. Therefore, on a recent visit to Washington, Turkish officials, uncharacteristically, were eager to discuss a whole host of options ranging from a buffer zone to humanitarian safe heavens in Syria.

But across the Atlantic, there is no such clarity when it comes to Syria.

In fact, almost a year into the uprising, American policy makers remain reluctant to delve deeper into the Syrian revolution other than slapping Damascus with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. There are threats, talking points, and apparently even military plans —but as senior U.S. officials recently told The Washington Post, mostly as an “academic exercise at this stage.” “U.S. sees few good options in Syria,” the headline summed up the mood inside the administration.

The truth is, suffering from Middle East fatigue, delighted with the Iraq exit, and unwilling to face risks in an election year, the Obama administration has made Syria a true laboratory for its famous maxim, “leading from behind.” And Turks are left wondering, are Americans interested in leading at all?

President Obama has already ruled out – perhaps too early and too categorically— the possibility of any military action in Syria, giving Damascus a comfort zone to plan out fresh campaigns to root out opposition in besieged towns like Homs, Hama, Zabadani, and the province of Idlib, where anti-regime forces have managed to make advances largely on their own resources.

Not just that; on a recent visit to Washington, for example, I listened to a host of U.S. officials express in varying degrees the administration’s reluctance to any of the following: engineer a coalition of the willing for a Libyan style no-fly zone, help create buffer zones on Syria’s borders with Turkey or Jordan, push for humanitarian aid or aid corridors to the nation’s besieged cities, recognize the newly emerging Syrian opposition, or support the loosely affiliated army defectors who have joined the revolution under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

In quite a role-reversal, Ankara, along with the Arab League, is now pushing for more solid steps to help the revolution—such as finding United Nation instruments outside of the Security Council or sending relief efforts to Syria’s besieged towns. In Washington, Davutoglu warned Congress and his American counterparts, “We cannot wait for another Sarajevo”. When I asked him later why he used the Bosnian metaphor, his answer was, “What’s happening is a typical Bosnian phenomenon. Siege from outside, cutting off supplies and pounding the city from outside. It’s an almost medieval concept and was last applied in Srebrenica and Sarajevo.” He described the situation in cities like Homs, Hama and Deraa as being intolerable and mentioned the need to push for U.N. relief agencies to enter Syria as a first step to a potential humanitarian corridor.

It may well be that the Turks, the French or the Arab League do not have the perfect plan yet—but starting out with a determination to help the Syrian uprising is exactly the right mindset. The question now is, what would it take for Washington to join the right side of history? By hand-wringing at proposals from allies and coming up with excuses for inaction, the U.S. administration is effectively signaling to the Syrian people not to count on America playing a historic role—well, at least not until the U.S. elections. To allies, their message is, “We are not ready.” To Assad, it is, “You still have time.”

This is short sighted. Syria is the Levant, a strategically located country on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the demolition of the dictatorship for a representative democracy will be no less important than regime change in Egypt to set the tone for the future of the Arabs. It will also isolate the Iranian regime and strengthen Turkey’s sphere of influence in the Middle East.

Surely a civil war in Syria is not desirable, but the longer the regime’s crackdown on protests, the more unstable the Eastern Mediterranean will get. It will inevitably affect Lebanon and Turkey. Based on my interviews with Syrian opposition and defectors, I know that they will not give up on their revolution. And why should they?

The good news is, by taking small steps, Washington can prevent another Srebrenica and become relevant again at the heart of the Arab world – all without putting troops on the ground. Allowing Turkey and the Arabs to take the lead is not a bad idea, but regime change still requires a serious American commitment. Taking the opposition seriously would be a good start. Humanitarian aid to besieged cities through the United Nations or willing allies would be another. And helping – directly or through allies—the Free Syrian Army maintain its hold on the already liberated zones would ultimately be the beginning of the end of Assad’s tyranny. That is, if we are really ready for a new chapter in the Middle East?

Ms. Aydintasbas is a columnist at the Turkish daily Milliyet


This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.