The Syrian government’s savagery has ruptured the friendship the Assad regime has enjoyed with Turkey since Prime Minister Erdogan came to power. There is now a refugee crisis on the border, and the Turkish military may be deployed to create a buffer zone to protect the Syrians that President Assad is trying to starve and abuse into submission.
On Sunday, Turkey delivered the first shipment of humanitarian aid to the refugees on the Syrian side of the border. The Turks are taking care of at least 10,000 refugees on its own territory, though the Turkish Red Crescent puts the number as high as 30,000. The assistance comes at a time of immense need. The army has made Jisr al-Shoughour a ghost town, and is now laying siege to the border town of Bdama. The 4th Division commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher, is burning down forests, stores and the bakery that is the single source of bread for the refugees. The cutting off of food, medicine and vital supplies to the refugees makes it more likely that Turkey will take drastic measures to contain the humanitarian crisis.
“If chaos starts, then we will have to form a security zone or buffer zone inside Syrian territory,” one Turkish official said. Prime Minister Erdogan has accused the Syrian regime of carrying out an “atrocity.” His government is urging that Assad carry out “shock” reforms and oversee a period of transition, echoing the words of President Obama in his speech about the Arab Spring. There are reports that Turkey will privately demand the sacking of Maher al-Assad as the commander of the 4th Division and Presidential Guards, as well as insist on specific reforms, but this has been denied.
Bashar Assad declared an agenda of reform on Monday. He said that over 100 figures would be invited to participate in dialogue regarding reform. He said that political parties besides his own Baath Party will be permitted to form, and parliamentary elections will be held in August if they are not postponed. Reforms would begin in September, he claimed. However, he again blamed the violence on “vandals” and if the past is any indication, there is no reason to believe this is anything other than a ruse.
The speech is not satisfying Turkey, the U.S. or the Syrian protesters. Refugees in the Turkish camps immediately staged protests. Turkish President Gul said it is “not enough,” and that the Syrian government must transition to a multi-party system. One of Gul’s advisers said “foreign intervention” is possible if far-reaching reforms do not begin within a week. The U.S. State Department said, “A speech is just words,” and the European Union expressed disapproval. The address also sparked protests inside Syria.
It is possible that Turkey will allow any buffer zone it creates to become a focal point for the opposition to organize. It has already allowed the Syrian opposition to hold important conferences on its territory. Earlier this month, 300 Syrian activists met in Turkey to form a united front. The group, which included both secular liberals and Islamists, demanded the resignation of Bashar Assad and affirmed a commitment to a democratic state with freedom of religion.
The Turkish government’s involvement does carry risks. Prime Minister Erdogan and his Islamist party won a landslide victory in the recent election. He has been praised by the Muslim Brotherhood, and has moved Turkey in a direction more hostile to the West and especially to Israel. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has stated, “We have a desire to coordinate the position of the opposition.” If Erdogan holds the most influence over the Syrian opposition, this could result in preferential treatment for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The heat on the Syrian regime is rising quickly. Secretary of State Clinton wrote on Saturday that “Syria is headed toward a new political order” and “there is no going back.” The U.S. is looking at war crimes charges against Syrian leaders, and possibly sanctioning entities related to the oil and gas industries. The European Union is preparing to implement stronger sanctions. Now, Turkey is raising the possibility of limited military intervention.
The Syrian regime is a staunch enemy of the West, and no tears should be shed for it. However, the West must get a proper understanding of the composition of the Syrian opposition, and how Turkey’s involvement will affect it. A rescue of the refugees should be a welcomed event, but a platform for the Muslim Brotherhood should not be.