Turkey today dispatched tanks to its border with Syria in an escalation of tension following the downing of a Turkish reconnaissance plane by Syrian air defense forces. The move coincides with renewed fears that Syria’s opposition is being drawn into an increasingly sectarian struggle that is marginalizing democratic elements.
If hardcore Islamist groups continue to attract disproportionate amounts of foreign funding and assistance, the Obama administration will need to “rethink its hands-off approach to the crisis,” says one analyst.
The attack was a “stupid move” by Damascus that could internationalize the crisis, “something it and its allies had desperately been trying to avoid,” claims Middle East commentator Juan Cole. Writing on his blog, Informed Comment, he says:
But Ankara is unlikely to take further action, despite Premier Reccip Erdogan’s belligerent rhetoric, analysts suggest.
“The government of Turkey has absolutely zero wish to be dragged into anything in Syria; they can see it’s a complete mess,” says Hugh Pope, a veteran Turkey watcher with the International Crisis Group.
“The only way Turkey will ever get involved in anything there is with complete international cover,” says Pope. “They’re going to NATO, they’re going to international fora. It’s all about [Turkey] being seen to do the right thing, it’s not about hatching dark plots in the night with cruise missiles and taking things out [in revenge].”
The good news is that most Syrians distrust the hardcore Islamists, Tyler Golson writes in the New Republic:
A public opinion survey conducted by the US Institute of Peace in September 2011 found that only 35 percent of Syrians see religion as an important issue in the anti-government demonstrations, with less than 14 percent preferring religious leaders or parties to lead a post-Assad Syria as compared to 66 percent who viewed “democratically-elected leaders” as the most qualified.
Compounding Syrians’ ideological unease with jihadists is the widespread concern that Islamist groups have either been infiltrated by, or are directly working for the Syrian regime.
“Syrians seem to be mostly pragmatic about their revolution,” says Golson, an Arabic social media analyst with Concepts & Strategies, Inc.:
With the Syrian opposition containing so many different sects, ethnicities, tribes, and political affiliations, an insistence on ideological purity is a hindrance to the greater goal of ousting the regime. Indeed, whereas independent jihadist groups are ideologically bound to reject any help from “infidels and traitor governments,” Free Syrian Army units freely accept cash and increasingly sophisticated arms, including anti-tank weaponry, from Gulf patrons, facilitated in part by non-lethal American assistance.
Russia’s unconditional support of the current regime remains the principal obstacle to effecting a political transition.
But the Kremlin needs “clear incentives” to change its position, says Radwan Ziadeh,* a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the principal opposition group:
First, the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, should issue a statement genuinely assuring Russia that, in spite of its support of the Syrian regime, Russian national interests would continue to be protected in Syria post-Assad. ……..
Most of all, the Syrian opposition as well as the international parties involved should guarantee stability in Syria post-Assad so as to protect Russian interests. It should be made clear to Putin that those currently lined up to come to power in Syria after Assad’s fall will not be quick to shake hands with a government that aided in their slaughter. So, it is clearly in Russia’s interests to begin trying to form a relationship with the players who might be in power in a future Syria. And those potential Syrian players should, in their country’s interest, rise above principle, and unlike Russia, “be the bigger man,” so to speak, by extending a diplomatic hand to reassure Putin.
Assad has become a liability for Moscow,” says Levant analyst Mona Yacoubian, but Russia may still be persuaded to take up a role in planning for a post-Assad transition.
‘Russia may be persuaded to work for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster under two conditions: first, Moscow must calculate that the cost of supporting Assad outweighs any benefits, and second, Russia must feel that it can help shape an alternative to Assad that is consonant with Russian interests,” writes Yacoubian, project director for Pathways to Progress: Peace, Prosperity and Change in the Middle East at the Stimson Center:
The United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan’s proposal to hold a June 30 international conference in Geneva holds the most promise for shifting Russia’s position, particularly given fresh fears of a regional war. With recent developments, both Russia and the United States may feel a stronger imperative to set aside their differences and work toward building a consensus on Syria. The Geneva conference could serve as an effective venue for Russia to assume a role in planning for a post-Assad transition.
U.S. Senator John McCain has warned that the conflict risks degenerating into a sectarian civil war with profoundly damaging implications for Syria’s territorial integrity, fears that are shared by Syrian activists.
“The country is being partitioned. Waiting will allow for the partitioning to actually take effect. There will be repercussions that will be felt in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Jordan, in Turkey and perhaps even in Israel as well,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The Obama administration’s “largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public’s broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels,” Golson argues in the New Republic. “But there’s no telling how much longer America’s strategic interests and the Syrian people’s sympathies will remain in sync.”
The US and other democracies may need to reassess their positions if funding and assistance from Islamist sources in the Gulf continue to take the revolt in a disturbingly sectarian direction, he suggests:
If a unified jihadist opposition did manage to challenge the Free Syrian Army’s primacy in the coming months, it could be an ominous indicator of where Syria’s opposition is heading. We could see the Free Syrian Army’s central leadership beginning to placate the Islamists by adopting Islamist rhetoric or institutions such as a sharia council, or Saudi Arabia starting to hedge its support of the FSA by taking meetings with upstart Islamist “emirs.” Either way, it would mean that the jihad is very much on in Syria. It would also mean that the United States had better rethink its hands-off approach to the crisis.