Waiting for Turkish Action in Syria

Will Turkey save the “Arab Spring” in Syria and create a buffer zone in the north of the country to provide civilians safe haven from the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad? Such a move would cement new Turkish foreign policy, which has shifted in favor of Arab demonstrators and away from their leaders, while enabling Ankara to battle the Kurdish insurgency that’s situated on its southern frontier.

Turkey, a major investor in Syria, for years pursued a “zero problems with neighbors” policy in the region before the Arab Spring forced it to pick sides.

In March of this year, it urged President Assad to “positively respond” to the demands of his people. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared at the time that a “reformist approach would help Syria to overcome the problems more easily.”

Assad didn’t listen though. The violent suppression of protests continued unabated by international pressure. The Turkish president, in August, said that his nation had “lost confidence” in Assad’s ability to democratize Syria. There was no place for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East anymore, said Abdullah Gül. “Clearly, the leaders of these countries will take the initiative or they will be changed by force.”

Whatever that force has amounted to so far, it hasn’t changed Assad’s posture nor, evidently, his determination to crush the uprising against him.

The Syrian president’s neighbors have long abandoned him. After Saudi king Abdullah condemned the violence in August, the Arab League proceeded to mediate — to no avail. Just this weekend, the organization had to admitted that its negotiated truce was being ignored by Damascus. Short of producing denunciations, there is very little more the league can do in unison to help the protesters.

Turkey, which has troops permanently stationed on the border to fend off Kurdish assaults, attacked insurgents in the north of Iraq as recently as August of this year with bombardments. Similar military action in Syria, perhaps justified as anti-insurgency operations against the Kurds, is not unthinkable.

Turkey has been coping with Syrian refugees and is anxious to position itself as the champion of the Arab Spring lest the new power brokers in countries as Egypt and possibly Syria remember that it was quite willing to work with their dictatorial predecessors until earlier this year. Now the country, governed by an Islamist party but steeped in a tradition of secularism, is a role model for Arab revolutionaries who are young and cosmopolitan but struggling to rally the support of religious elements which were long the only possible organized opposition across the Arab world.

Relations between Erdoğan’s party and the military haven’t been cordial. Scores of officers are detained on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the prime minister’s conservative government. This summer, the chief of the Turkish armed forces along with the heads of air force, army and navy resigned in protest. Erdoğan, apparently on guard against an army coup, may be only too happy to have them off to fight a war instead of interfering in the nation’s government.

Tunisians Vote Amid International Scrutiny

Tunisians headed to the polls on Sunday in what was the first free election in the Muslim world since their country ignited the Arab Spring last January.

Although many voters told foreign reporters that their priorities were boosting employment and cleaning up the corruption that they associate with the old regime, there is concern in Europe and the United States about the mounting popularity of political Islam.

Ennahda, the Renaissance Party, is expected to win a plurality of the votes if not a majority. The secular front, by contrast, is splintered with more than a hundred liberal and socialist parties contesting the election.

Ennahda‘s rise hasn’t just fueled anxiety in the West but in Tunisia as well where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali imposed a secular regime for almost 25 years before he was ousted in a popular uprising this year.

Especially among the urban youth who played a key role in the revolt, the Islamist political presence is regarded warily, notwithstanding assurances from Ennahda‘s leaders that they do not seek to impose religious values on the entire nation. They say they draw inspiration from Turkey where a conservative Muslim government is less aggressively secular than were its predecessors although there, too, the opposition worries that an overtly religious sentiment among the political class could permeate Turkish society and make it less tolerant.

There is division within Ennahda about the party’s Muslim identity. Whereas the leadership claims to seek a pluralistic democracy and has promised to work with liberal parties before a proper government is formed, there are supporters who favor more space for traditional Islamic values, ranging from the freedom for woman to wear the veil to a ban on alcohol.

Secularists pushed back vehemently during election day when Ennahda representatives were called “terrorists” by some. The first free vote was universally heralded as a victory by Tunisians but their politics are almost certainly to become more polarized than they were during Ben Ali’s days when Muslims weren’t allowed to express their faith in public.

Tunisians elected an assembly on Sunday that will draft a new constitution to replace the one that allowed Ben Ali to cling to power for decades. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new parliament and president.

If Ennahda fails to secure an outright majority, its influence will be diluted in a coalition with secular members of the assembly who champion modernization.

Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Arab Spring Models

While violence rages in Syria and Yemen, two other key players in the broader Middle East are paving the way toward modest political reforms that the West can herald as a proper response to the aspirations of young Arabs emboldened by the Arab Spring.

Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been both able to stay ahead of the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East since the start of this year with reforms that defuse internal tension even if the opposition remains unsatisfied.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco held a referendum this summer about several constitutional reforms which forced him, among other things, to appoint a prime minister from the largest parliamentary faction and cede the power to dissolute the legislature to the head of the government. His Saudi counterpart increased college, housing and social security benefits in February and announced a raise in government salaries before protests could erupt in his oil kingdom.

Last week, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections in 2015 and serve on his advisory council. The changes should help to at least somewhat lessen discontent among the Saudi youth without jeopardizing the monarchy’s support of conservative Islamists.

Western powers have struggled to respond to the Arab Spring as their interests and values are often at odds in the region. According to the strategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, the solid middle ground that was found in Morocco and Saudi Arabia could be embraced as a model that the West can push other allies, including Bahrain and Jordan, toward implementing.

“Their strategy can also incrementally empower the liberal elements of society instead of Islamists,” according to Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for September, “by allowing increased openness without rushing into elections that non-Islamists would be unprepared for.” That is especially true for Egypt where the secular opposition, after decades of oppression, is disorganized and altogether ill prepared for parliamentary and presidential elections whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, a political as well as a religious organization, is expected to perform when the country strill struggles with democracy.

There is, on the other hand, the chance for more brutal dictatorship like Iran’s and Syria’s that concessions could hasten their demise. If the regime is perceived as conciliatory and weak, it will strengthen demonstrators in countries where the government has little legitimacy to begin with. In the region’s monarchies, by contrast, the king usually enjoys great authority and popularity, enabling him to reform without undermining the ruling family’s position.

Steps Toward “Real” Freedom for Libya

Take a quick glance at Tripoli from the TV, and you will see scenes of celebration and jubilation that the Libyan people haven’t been able to enjoy for 42 years. Columns of armed rebels have streamed into the center of the Libyan capital to the sound of cheering civilians kissing the ground and large billboards of Muammar al-Gaddafi being torn down. The trademark green flag of the colonel’s Libyan Revolution — a symbol of the regime’s oppression for decades — are ripped and replaced with the pre-Gaddafi red, black and green banner. The last-ditch effort by Gaddafi soldiers to stall the rebel offensive, with the exception of a few pockets of resistance near Gaddafi’s fortress like compound, proved to be a misnomer, with hundreds laying down their arms and blending into the general population. Even if no one knows where he is, Gaddafi is a beaten man, holding on to the delusion that Libyan tribes will come to his rescue and millions of supporters will desert their families to beat back the rebels in the streets of Tripoli.

The international reaction to Gaddafi’s imminent downfall was optimistic and predictable. President Barack Obama issued a statement reiterating his call that the Libyan leader should recognize that his people have no love for him and should stop resisting immediately. NATO, which has paved the way for the rebel advance, has pledged to continue its airstrikes until Gaddafi no longer poses a threat to civilians.

After six months of civil war, France, Great Britain and the United States are finally patting themselves on the back and congratulating one another on a job well done. Indeed, if it weren’t for NATO, there was a very high probability that Gaddafi would have survived the armed revolt against his opponents. Only six months ago, the rebels were days away from being squashed by Libyan security forces in the city of Benghazi.

Sensing that a massacre was imminent, NATO decided to intervene with airpower, helping push Libyan forces to the periphery. Close to 8,000 strike sorties later — and with the rebel’s determination on the ground complementing NATO’s efforts — Gaddafi’s military infrastructure is nonexistent.

Yet at the same time Libyans are dancing in the streets and shooting celebratory gunfire into the air, the work of rebuilding the country and its institutions is only just beginning. As history has demonstrated countless times over the past four decades (from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Mobutu Sese Seko’s Congo), driving a dictator into hiding is a whole lot easier than ensuring that peace and inclusiveness will define the transition process. The United States found out the long way how difficult establishing a postwar order was both Iraq and Afghanistan, where the new governments have failed to be impartial and fair to all sectors of society.

Libya, with its tribal, regional and ethnic dimensions, is no different. The North African country may have its own political history but the comparisons to post-Saddam Iraq could be a self-fulfilling prophecy if certain steps are not taken immediately to edge the country in the right direction.

Gaddafi was a lot of things but he was certainly not a developer. He leaves in his wake a debilitating set of national institutions that were designed specifically to promote his bazaar brand of Arab socialism.

With rebels streaming into the capital, the official Libyan army and police force has essentially disbanded themselves, leaving open a security vacuum that rebel militias have tried to fill. Oil production, which has long been Libya’s main industry, is pumping and selling oil at a trickle of what it once was before the civil war began. The postwar period in Libya, therefore, will be an especially combustible period — but one that Libyans and the world must turn into a success.

Courtesy of foreign journalists on the ground, Libya watchers in the private sector, academics specializing in postwar reconstruction and my own ideas, here are a few steps (some small, others large) that could be taken in the first few months to smooth the process toward a fair and representative interim authority.

Keep Gaddafi technocrats in their positions

The last thing the Libyan rebels and the National Transitional Council in Benghazi need are ministries that are run by incompetent people with ulterior motives. Not all of the men and women who worked for the Libyan dictator were supportive of his ideology. Like those who worked under Saddam Hussein, many of the middle managers and midlevel technocrats joined Gaddafi’s administration for a steady paycheck, benefits and a sense of security for their families. Most of them also possess an acute knowledge of the social fissures in their own society.

Rather than shutting these public servants out and wasting their experience, the NTC must work with them to begin the reconstruction.

Secure ammo dumps and provide basic law and order

Libya is a huge country, with the entire territory larger than the state of Texas. Libyans are also armed to the teeth and with rebels now in the capital, the desire to raid government ammunition dumps (either to sell or to maintain the battlefield advantage) borders on the certainty.

If the NTC were smart, it would issue an executive order demanding that all rebel factions under its control resort to guarding the dumps rather than stealing what is inside.

Unfortunately, some of the rebels may not listen. The looting of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound is a case in point. But better to issue an order and attempt to deal with the problem now than face a situation in the future where thousands of untrained men are strapped with AK-47s and ground to air missiles.

Unfreeze Gaddafi’s assets

The United States and the United Nations hold approximately $32 billion in frozen Libyan government assets. That money can go a long way to jump starting a number of projects in areas that were destroyed by the fighting. 

The NTC is the legitimate government in Libya today and with Gaddafi loyalists melting away, their authority will only increase as the days go by. Releasing the frozen funds, which after all belong to the Libyan people, is a great first step that the world can take toward building confidence in the new Libya and promoting a deep relationship with Libya’s new rulers. 

The news coming out of the United Nations Security Council, which authorized the release of $1.5 billion on Thursday for humanitarian and reconstruction needs, is a positive example that should be used as a precedent. The funds, however, should not be released all at once, as postwar reconstruction expoert Daniel Serwer has suggested. Iraq and Afghanistan have both taught us that billions in the open market are more likely to fuel corruption than fund local, regional or national growth.

Promote reconciliation

While eastern and western Libyans both participated in ousting Gaddafi from power, the two areas of the country hold specific grievances and remain suspicious of one another. A large part of this animosity is due to Gaddafi’s abandonment of eastern Libya, which is precisely why Benghazi was the first major city to push for an alternative form of government. 

Easterners view western Libyans as the main beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s oil-producing economy. The colonel’s hometown of Sirte has seen development, while Libya’s eastern frontier is wracked with leaking sewage systems and blackouts.

For their part, western rebels paint a poor picture of a Benghazi based leadership that is laissez-faire on too many issues, the most important being the NTC’s cumbersome support for western rebels during the Nafusa Mountain offensive.

Giving all of Libya’s regions and tribes an equal say in the transition process is a necessity if the NTC wishes to hold on to power before elections are scheduled. Fortunately, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil has called for a conference emphasizing just that.

Bring the NTC to Tripoli

Once Gaddafi and his men are gone for good — and the neighborhoods of the capital city are relatively secure — the NTC leadership should move their permanent headquarters from Benghazi to Tripoli. The move would be a symbolic gesture to western Libyans and Gaddafi loyalists who might otherwise fear that Libya’s interim government plans on marginalizing them.

Get Libyan oil up and running

Libya’s oil industry is the primary income generator for the government. Civil servants, policemen, militiamen, schoolteachers, diplomats and construction workers all need to get paid — and paid consistently. Opening up Libya’s oil to outside markets and using profits from those contracts and sales for salaries could be the fastest way to make everyone happy in the short term.

Prepare for elections and draft a constitution

For the past 42 years, a functioning constitution never came into play. The entire government structure was predicated on Gaddafi’s personal beliefs, down to the local level. With the man now gone, Libyans have an opportunity to draft a national constitution of their own liking.

Libyans above all should be the sole drafters of the Constitution after reasonably free and fair elections have taken place. Western nations should keep their involvement in the Constitution drafting process to a minimum, eliminating the concern that is prevalent in Libya over a possible return to colonialism.

Don’t get ahead of yourself

Tripoli may be in rebel hands but Gaddafi loyalists will continue to stage fierce resistance elsewhere in the country. Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte and villages in the southern desert are still held by loyalist forces and may be held for many more months. Declaring victory, even as Gaddafi remains at large and towns in the Sahel are still contested, could very well hurt the NTC’s credibility with its supporters if the security situation deteriorates. Avoiding a “Mission Accomplished” moment while recognizing that Libyan territory is still not entirely free from Gaddafi’s influence would be a demonstration of realism in an otherwise hyped atmosphere.

Everything in this list is pivotal to lifting Libya off the ground after six months of armed conflict. More work will need to be done as the NTC meets its initial deadlines, particularly on the important task of drafting a constitution that every tribe, region and ethnicity can live with. But with a post-Gaddafi Libya now progressing, preventing political disintegration, lawlessness, looting, factional infighting, retribution against former Gaddafi supporters, economic distress and regional rivalry must be on the top of any “to do” list.

None of this will be quick or easy but it is essential if Libya is to divert from the path of other postwar countries.

Yemen’s Saleh Wants to Come Back Home

It has been a little over two months since Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed. On June 3, shelling from tribal forces in residential neighborhods of the capital Sana’a hit the presidential palace’s mosque just as he and a number of government allies were praying there. The mortar attack killed a few of Saleh’s elite Republican Guard troops, injured several of the highest officials in his ruling National Congress Party, including the prime minister, and came close to ending Saleh’s own life. His face was burned and shrapnel was lodged close to his heart, enough to have him whisked off to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Read more “Yemen’s Saleh Wants to Come Back Home”

Contemplating a Libya Without Gaddafi

Anti-government combatants closed in on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli on Sunday night and continued their advance into the heart of the capital on Monday. After six months of civil war, during which NATO, aiming to protect civilians from the brutalities of the Gaddafi regime, helped the rebels with bombardments of loyalist forces, the demise of North Africa’s last dictatorship seemed imminent.

Gaddafi would be the last of three North African autocrats to be ousted during the Arab Spring. Longtime Tunisian and Egyptian presidents previously relinquished power in the face of popular uprisings. Unlike its neighboring countries, Libya has virtually no government structure in place outside of Gaddafi’s family and loyalists. The country of six million has been ruled by the eccentric dictator for over forty years. During that time, there was no organized opposition while the army, which took control of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak resigned, was kept at bay by the colonel who always feared a repetition of the 1969 military coup which had propelled him to power.

The interim government established by Libya’s anti-government forces in the eastern city of Benghazi lacks coherent leadership although several former Gaddafi ministers and military officials defected to the rebel camp during the uprising. There also isn’t much coordination between rebel fighters in different parts of the country. United in their struggle against the regime, the opposition has little else in common.

After more than four decades of authoritarian rule, Libya seems ill prepared for the sort of inclusive democracy that the National Transitional Council claims it intends to establish. Among their numbers, the rebels count Islamists and secularists, socialists and pragmatists who all want a different Libya.

One possible unifying figure is former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil who chairs the transitional council in Benghazi, the rebels’ legislative body. He resigned from Gaddafi’s government in late February in disapproval of the violence that was deployed against anti-government demonstrators during the early phrase of the uprising. “We want a democratic government, a fair constitution, and we don’t want to be isolated from the world anymore,” he declared after his defection.

Despite his work for the regime, Abdel Jalil won praise from human rights groups and Western powers for his efforts to reform Libya’s criminal code.

Abdel Jalil hasn’t indicated a willingness to become Libya’s first president, whether transitional or elected. The rebels’ Mahmoud Jibril, who acts as something of an interim prime minister, seems more posed for a leadership role. An economist and political scientists by training, Jibril headed Libya’s economic planning board for nearly four years until he resigned in protest five months ago. In that position, he had promoted liberalization of the country’s economy and privatization of its many state-owned enterprises.

Jibril’s many foreign trips as chairman of the rebels’ executive board have made him probably the most recognizable figure in the transitional government. He led negotiations with French president Nicolas Sarkozy which culminated in France’s recognition of the National Transitional Council as the sole representative of the Libyan people.

The third most visible rebel leader is Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, a human rights attorney who acted as the revolutionary movement’s spokesman during the early days of the revolt and became the National Transitional Council’s vice chairman in late March.

Little is known of Ghoga but he suggested on Monday that the transitional council could move to Tripoli and prepare elections within a month of Gaddafi’s fall.

Perhaps the greatest threat to stability in the short term would be a widespread purge of the ancien régime and everyone who collaborated with it.

After the United States defeated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, they removed virtually all members of the Ba’ath Party from office as well as senior, mostly Sunni security personnel in the majority Shia country. Iraq’s entire institutional leadership evaporated in a matter of weeks, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by religious extremists and insurgents.

The Allies similarly implemented a policy of denazification in Germany in the aftermath of World War II which exacerbated the country’s economic hardship after more than a year of destructive warfare on its territory. That policy was reversed in 1951 because it proved impossible to rebuild Germany by excluding every petty bureaucrat and businessman who might have worked for or with the Nazis. So it will be extremely difficult to rebuild Libya, especially its energy industry, without taking advantage of the experience of people who worked for Muammar Gaddafi.

For Gaddafi, End is Nigh

(AUG 22) Anti-government combatants closed in on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli on Sunday night and continued their advance into the heart of the capital on Monday. After six months of civil war, during which NATO, aiming to protect civilians from the brutalities of the Gaddafi regime, helped the rebels with bombardments of loyalist forces, the demise of North Africa’s last dictatorship seemed imminent.

Two of Gaddafi’s sons were reported captured by the rebels’ National Transitional Council while the leader himself twice urged supporters to fight his antagonists over radio on Sunday. When anti-government forces entered the capital however, they were largely welcomed by protesters and Tripoli residents who had suffered several months of depravation and shortages as the regime’s lifeline, Libya’s oil industry, had been shut off by sanctions and disturbances in the major oil ports of Brega and Ra’s Lanuf.

The rebels’ interim government in the eastern city of Benghazi lacked coherent leadership and there wasn’t much coordination between anti-government fighters in different parts of the country. After more than four decades of authoritarian rule, Libya seemed ill prepared for the sort of inclusive democracy that the National Transitional Council claimed it intended to establish. Read more “For Gaddafi, End is Nigh”

Turkey’s Arab Spring Problem

Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey's foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18
Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, answers questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 18 (NATO)

When Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu issued Turkey’s final warning to Syria on August 15 it marked the end of an era in Turkish relations with the Middle East. Davutoğlu had visited the authoritarian Middle Eastern country sixty times in his post as chief Turkish diplomat and many of them were in crisis talks over the protests that had swept the country in the past six months.

Davutoğlu had expected his words to carry some weight and that Turkey, a regional superpower and a prospective candidate for European Union membership, could influence its neighbor to the south and encourage it to open up and halt the ongoing crackdown. When those words fell on deaf ears, it marked an end to an experiment known as the “zero problems” foreign policy.

Previous Turkish governments had taken a hard line toward the Middle East and a policy of cooperation with Israel. This changed from 2003 when Davutoğlu and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, representing the moderate Islamic AK Party, came to power and gradually started to assert civilian authority in the face of a suspicious secular military.

The idea was simple — engage with Turkey’s authoritarian neighbors such as Iran and Syria and, using a combination of trade and diplomacy ensure three goals: the securing of Turkey’s long border with the Middle East, a joint response to Kurdish extremism and (it hoped) the gradual cooling of a restive and volatile region prone to boiling over into conflict which would threaten Turkish stability.

In recent years and after elections in 2007 secured an even bigger AK Party majority in Turkey’s parliament, the zero problems policy was rolled out into other areas outside of Turkey’s usual sphere of influence. More authoritarian countries in North Africa such as Algeria, Libya and Tunisia all benefited from a gentler diplomatic approach and greater trade with Turkey.

The biggest event came when Turkey started to foster greater diplomatic and economic ties with its traditional enemy Greece. In 2010, at a time of great economic and political crisis in Greece, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu visited with an army of Turkish ministers and businessmen. Joint cabinet meetings were held and contracts signed and while key issues of borders and a final solution to the Cyprus question were not settled, they were never meant to be. The aim of Turkey’s visit was one of solidarity with its stricken neighbor and to foster an atmosphere where the two countries could set aside their differences and focus on areas of mutual benefit.

The American government and some European nations such as Britain have called for Turkey’s entry into the EU to be accelerated. Turkey’s zero problems policy has also been praised in parts of the world as promoting a more stable and prosperous Middle East.

But zero problems in fact created problems — and awkward ones at that. Some politicians in America and the EU have wondered aloud that if Turkey is actively engaging with regimes such as Iran and Syria, whose side exactly is it on? France and Germany grumble loudly that Turkey turning a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses in Iran and Syria harms its prospects of EU membership.

Worse still, Israeli-Turkish relations have collapsed after several diplomatic incidents, including one case bordering on the bizarre when Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon summoned Turkey’s ambassador and dressed him down on national television.

Then came the ill-fated Mavi Marmara fiasco in 2010. A botched raid by Israeli special forces on a ship heading for the Gaza strip ended in nine activists killed and several injured Israeli commandos briefly taken captive, and effectively froze relations between the two nations for a period. Currently, Israel and Turkey are at loggerheads over who is to blame and if an apology by Israel is required. A thaw in relations may only happen if there is a change in government in one or both countries.

Also, these issues were manageable so long as there was no major geopolitical event that could disrupt the delicate balance between East and West that Turkey had so carefully set over the previous decade. Turkey felt that it could continue to develop links to nations once considered beyond the pale and gradually reform itself to become more attractive to the West.

Which is why it could be argued that no country in the region was caught more unawares by the Arab Spring than Turkey. When it broke out in Tunisia, Turkey like France found itself wrongfooted by mass popular protests that started to either remove existing regimes friendly to Ankara or force them into making extensive concessions.

Most damaging were the fall of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s descent into chaos. Turkish business had invested heavily in both countries and now face serious losses as uncertainty looms as to the post-Arab Spring political landscape.

Most worryingly of all, as the protests inch closer and closer to home, Turkey faces an unprecedented foreign policy challenge as a tense Lebanon combines with a mass protest movement in Israel, a surge in violence in Iraq and a Syria in meltdown.

This has seen Turkey in some ways revert to type as its unilateral tendencies start to reappear. Already Turkey has darkly hinted that what is happening in Syria is an “internal Turkish matter” as it frets about the possibility of a long porous border becoming a backdoor for Kurdish terrorism. Nobody is predicting a Turkish intervention in Syria but then again few had predicted the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The options for Turkey now are limited. It can either wait and see or follow its zero problems strategy and simply shift its stance to accommodate the new order falling across the Middle East. The approach in recent months has been markedly different to how Turkey dealt with Libya and Tunisia initially, as Ankara tries to stay one step ahead in the diplomatic game. Turkish ferries have helped injured civilians out of rebel held Libya for treatment in Turkey or elsewhere, while aid has been promised to Egypt and Tunisia in an effort to woo the new governments. A new Kadima led government in Israel may lead to a thaw in relations between the two countries.

Where this will end nobody quite knows but it will be dictated by the ebb and flow of the Arab Spring.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, August 18, 2011.

Syrian President Doubling Down

The noose around Bashar al-Assad’s neck is tightening. Five months into a nationwide anti-government protest movement that shows no signs of abating, the Syrian president and his inner circle of advisors and security officials have decided to step up the aggression against cities and towns that were overtaken by pro-democracy sentiment. The suburbs of Damascus, quiet and largely insulated from the unrest until last month, have adapted into an extension of the marches further south and west — a dangerous escalation for the regime that has tried to retain its base of support in Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

Further southeast, the central Syrian city of Hama is in ruins from the aftermath of the most horrendous military assault since demonstrations stared in March — perpetuated by Assad’s most loyal units of the security services. The streets of Hama are deserted, filled with compacted garbage, destroyed homes, collapsed buildings and the decaying corpses of the “martyrs” who put their lives on the line to defend their rights. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ruble from the tank shelling and machine gun fire sporadically aimed by Syria’s most elite troops. And while the casualty count is nowhere near the 20,000 that were ordered by Bashar’s father in 1982, the military incursion had a devastating psychological impact nonetheless. Yet just as Syrian protesters have refused to cower from government intimidation, the residents of Hama are ready to rebuild their city and pick up where they left off. Read more “Syrian President Doubling Down”

The Way Out of Libya

Whether referred to as indirect negotiations, unofficial peace overtures or feelers from the international community, Britain, France, the United States and their NATO partners are sending out signals to Muammar al-Gaddafi that diplomacy is increasingly an option for ending the conflict in his country.

For Gaddafi and what remains of his military force, talk of diplomacy from a NATO coalition that just weeks before predicted that his regime was ever closer to collapse is an encouraging development. Gaddafi’s loyalists may be equipped with old military equipment and cash may be running out, but they are obviously doing something right if the world’s strongest military alliance is having trouble turning the tide of the war to its advantage.

Indeed, what Gaddafi’s military has lacked in weaponry it has made up for in tactics — evolving from a conventional military force to an asymmetrical guerrilla movement fighting the rebels to a standstill. And with official soldiers difficult to pick out from regular civilians, the strike sorties that NATO has depended on to enforce its no-fly zone and help the Libyan opposition on the ground are jeopardized to a certain degree. The rebels’ shortage of weapons and, in some distinct cases, fundamental disagreements among the Transitional National Council’s (TNC) numerous tribes, has dampened their ability to progress on the battlefield.

It is this frustration on the frontlines, coupled with the rising impatience in Western capitals that Gaddafi is still hanging on, why the leading partners of NATO’s coalition are concentrating on a more civilized approach. With rebel positions stalled as the desert heat of summer continues to set in, NATO is undeniably hoping that a nice bribe will convince Gaddafi to step down from power and make way for a democratic transition. France, the most outspoken member of the anti-Gaddafi alliance to date, is voicing tepid support to such an alternative. The United States, a longtime Gaddafi adversary, is not necessarily opposed to the strongman remaining in Libya as long as he completely relinquishes power and ensures that he will not work behind the scenes to impede the transition.

Making peace with a tyrant who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians staining his hands is hard for any diplomat to stomach. Backpedaling on the military operation is also a tough thing for any military organization to do, since easing the bombing is basically an admission that the alliance has not been able to achieve its objectives through force alone. But conditions inside Libya today are not getting any better. The TNC, despite receiving international support and defections from Gaddafi ministers, is still not in control of the majority of the Libyan people. The prospects for negotiation get dimmer every time the rebel advance toward Tripoli is stalled. Finding an agreement that Gaddafi’s family will accept is therefore a course of action that should be considered.

In order to speed up the process and make a peace offer as credible as it can get, NATO would find it helpful to commission two countries that are seen as neutral players in the conflict.

Turkey and South Africa, one representing the Muslim world and the other representing the African Union, might be two acceptable choices for taking the lead in those talks. Gaddafi has enjoyed a good relationship with South Africa over the years, a country whose former president Nelson Mandela once referred to Gaddafi as a “brother leader.” Turkey, a rising star in the Muslim world and an actor that has championed the same Arab causes that Gaddafi has shown an interest in (the rights of Palestinians) could possibly sweeten the negotiating atmosphere. Russia, which holds considerable economic interests in Libya, could also be a trustworthy partner in the eyes of the Gaddafi regime — that is, if the Russian government is willing to concede further military action in Libya if the talks prove to be unsuccessful.

With the diplomatic chops of Turkey and South Africa and with the weight of Western nations to back them up, sweet talking Gaddafi and assuring the safety of himself and his family could be the quickest, and least bloody, mechanism to send him packing. Human rights organizations may not agree with the tactic but it will save the lives of thousands who would perish from more violence.