Turkey, Syrian opposition weighing options

As Turkey’s diplomatic efforts to help form a “Friends of Syria” group in response China and Russia’s veto of the Arab League plan gain traction, questions remain whether this is a step towards the official recognition of the Syrian opposition and the creation of a safe-zone in Syria.

Since last summer, Turkey has been playing host to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) — a group of army defectors fighting the regime in Syria with their command and control centre in Hatay — and has facilitated the formation of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).

But the Syrian opposition is fragmented, sharing the common goal of ousting Assad from power, but often diverging over tactics and the end game.

The SNC, which favours outside intervention, has been accused by some in Syria of being a group of exiles that is overly represented by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and has little power on the ground. Meanwhile, protests and resistance in Syria are being organised by loosely based local co-ordination committees, which are against direct foreign intervention.

According to Osman Bahadir Dincer, a Syria expert at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), Turkey hasn’t widened the scope of dialogue beyond the SNC to include other segments of the Syrian opposition.

“I see no policy … that will actually bring the change in Syria,” he told SES Türkiye.

Due to Turkey’s support of the SNC, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been accused of overly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the SNC and prominent figure within the Syrian opposition, argues that the AKP government has moved to bring in other groups besides the Brotherhood.

“Early on, it was perceived that Turkey was more supporting the Islamist groups,” Kodmani told SES Türkiye. “The AKP wants the broad coalition now to include Islamists, but not to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said.

As the peaceful protest movement has turned ever more violent, the FSA — numbering anywhere between a few thousand to unverified claims of as many as 40,000 defectors — is now becoming the main actor leading the revolt.

Although there is speculation in news reports that Turkey provides financial aid and weapons to the FSA, “there is no evidence of that at all,” says Kodmani. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has also denied such claims.

Kodmani says the SNC is trying to establish co-ordination with the FSA so that they don’t become “small armed groups here and there, working on their own”. She says they are trying to get the military command to join the SNC in order to prevent the FSA from coming under “some foreign power, or other powers”.

“We expect from Turkey to keep co-ordinating with the Arab League in leading the international community to come up with any solution that may protect civilians, including the option of safe zones and corridors and [to] delegitimise Assad’s regime. In this case, I believe that the Free Syrian Army will topple the regime itself without any foreign military intervention,” Syrian National Council spokesman Khaled Khoja told SES Türkiye.

In the absence of a united international position and a fractious opposition, the prospect of a safe zone backed by Turkey doesn’t appear to be an immediate option. Turkey has said it would intervene only with UN support or in the event of mass refugee flows, in which case it could call upon NATO Allies to protect its border.

Calls to support the FSA — which is relying largely on the weapons the defectors took with them — are likely to mount as defections rise, diplomatic options fail, and the violence of the Syrian regime continues unabated.

According the Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, assistant professor at the Gazi University International Relations Department, instead of direct intervention, indirect methods of undermining the Assad regime, including a greater role for the FSA, could gain greater weight going forward.

Yurter Ozcan, the founder and president of the Turkish Policy Centre in Washington, told SES Türkiyethat even if a NATO strike similar to the one in Libya is not on the table, increased efforts could be made to cause defection among the Syrian Army, and integrate them into the FSA.

He says that NATO countries will likely play a role going forward and Turkey will be heavily involved in those efforts through logistics, providing training and arms to the FSA, but will shy away from portraying this as NATO effort.

SES Türkiye correspondents Alakbar Raufoglu and Menekse Tokyay contributed to this report.

Categories: SETimes/SESTurkiye