3:43pm

Tue March 20, 2012
Middle East

Turkey Resists Calls To Arm Syrian Rebels

Originally published on Tue March 20, 2012 5:15 pm

The rising civilian death toll in Syria is accompanied by mounting calls to arm the Syrian opposition. And Turkey, a NATO country that shares a long, rugged border with Syria, is often mentioned as a likely transit point.

Turkey has become increasingly critical of the Syrian regime, but Ankara is thus far reluctant to send significant arms across the border or use its large military to create a humanitarian corridor inside Syria.

Syria already claims that Turkey is arming the Free Syrian Army, which Damascus refers to as "armed terrorist gangs." But Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently dismissed the charge as transparently false. If Turkey is supplying arms to the rebels, he asked, then why are their weapons so few and so primitive?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did mention humanitarian corridors recently, as did Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, in remarks to Turkish broadcaster NTV.

In cautious, highly qualified comments, Atalay said Turkey is working with international partners, especially the Arab League, to better protect civilian life in Syria. In that context, he said, buffer zones were among the options being considered.

A Path For Intervention

Immediately, some analysts declared that such safe zones could be a "game changer" in the Syrian conflict, opening the door to foreign military intervention, which would most likely improve the environment for opposition fighters and civilians alike.

Hugh Pope, an analyst based in Istanbul with the International Crisis Group, says that argument correctly concludes that there can be no such thing as a civil "humanitarian corridor" in Syria — it would have to be enforced by the military.

But Pope says there are a number of reasons why Turkey doesn't want its troops to take the lead, including real questions about the ability of the Turkish army to carve out and maintain such corridors in a combat environment.

"On paper, it has the second-biggest army in NATO, but you have to look at the situation inside Turkey, where the Turkish army has been pinned down for years trying to defeat its own Kurdish insurgency, and this is not a very credible idea that the army is sprightly enough to go and take on another army in even more difficult circumstances," he says, adding that the Syrian army is "very well-armed."

According to Western officials, the Syrian regime is getting its weapons from Russia and Iran.

Pope says some of the Western enthusiasm for Turkey to flex its muscle can be traced to events from the late 1990s, when Syria did give up a wanted Kurdish insurgent leader after military threats from Turkey. But he says it's wishful thinking to imagine that scenario playing out in this case.

"I think some people are remembering that 'when Turkey growls, Damascus folds its hand.' This is absolutely not applicable in this case, because the Syrian regime is fighting for its existence," Pope says.

Damascus-Tehran Connection

Others point out that it's not just the Syrian regime's survival at issue, but vital national interests of another neighbor, Iran, which uses Syria to project its influence into the Mideast.

Gokhan Bacik, reached via Skype at Zirve University in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border, says two very powerful and very different forces are colliding in Syria — the international impulse to stop the horrific scenes of humanitarian suffering, and the age-old calculations of national interests. Bacik says in theory, it should be possible to convince Iran that regime change in Syria needn't be a threat.

"The solution for me is to guarantee [Iranian] interests in the region. Otherwise they will keep perceiving the Syrian problem not as a problem of human rights or authoritarianism, but [as] a problem of their own national interests," Bacik says.

But he knows that this type of solution would be anathema to those who have long sought to sever the Damascus-Tehran connection.

In the meantime, as allegations of atrocities by government forces and their militias pile up, so do signs that arming the largely unknown Syrian opposition could have unintended consequences. The latest report from Human Rights Watch details accounts of "serious human-rights abuses" by opposition fighters.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The rising civilian death toll in Syria has increased calls to arm the Syrian opposition. And Turkey has been mentioned as a likely transit point for arms. It's a member of NATO and Syria's neighbor. But so far, Turkey has been reluctant to send significant arms across the border.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has more from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As far as Syria is concerned, Turkey already is arming the Free Syrian Army, which Damascus refers to as armed terrorist gangs. But Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently dismissed that as transparently false. If Turkey is supplying arms to the rebels, he asked, then why are their weapons so few and so primitive?

The mounting pressure for someone to do something to stanch the bloodshed in Syria has some eager to jump on the slightest hint that Turkey may act. For example, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan mentioned humanitarian corridors recently, and so did Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, in remarks to Turkish broadcaster NTV.

BESIR ATALAY: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: In cautious, highly-qualified comments, Atalay said Turkey is working with international partners, especially the Arab League, to better protect civilian life in Syria. In that context, he said, buffer zones were among the options being considered.

Immediately, some analysts declared that such safe zones could be a game changer in the Syrian conflict, opening the door to foreign military intervention, which would likely improve the environment for opposition fighters and civilians alike.

Istanbul-based analyst Hugh Pope, with the International Crisis Group, says that argument correctly concludes that there can be no such thing as a civil humanitarian corridor in Syria - it would have to be enforced by the military. But Pope says there are a number of reasons why Turkey doesn't want its troops to take the lead on this, including real questions about the ability of the Turkish army to carve out and maintain such corridors in a combat environment.

HUGH POPE: On paper, it has the second-biggest army in NATO. But you have to look at the situation inside Turkey, where the Turkish army has been pinned down for years trying to defeat its own Kurdish insurgency. And this is not a very credible idea that the army is sprightly enough to go and take on another army in even more difficult circumstances. The Syrian army is very well-armed.

KENYON: According to Western officials, the Syrian regime is getting its weapons from Russia and Iran. Pope says some of the Western enthusiasm for Turkey to flex its muscle can be traced to events from the late-1990s, when Damascus did give up a wanted Kurdish insurgent leader, after military threats from Ankara. But he says its wishful thinking to imagine that scenario playing out in this case.

POPE: I think some people are remembering that when Turkey growls, Damascus folds its hand. This is absolutely not applicable in this case 'cause the Syrian regime is fighting for its existence.

KENYON: Others point out that it's not just the Syrian regime's survival at issue, but vital national interests of another neighbor, Iran, which uses Syria to project its influence into the Middle East.

Gokhan Bacik, reached via Internet at Zirve University in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, says two very powerful and very different forces are colliding in Syria - the international impulse to stop the horrific scenes of humanitarian suffering, and the age-old calculations of national interests. Bacik says, in theory, it should be possible to convince Iran that regime change in Syria needn't be a threat.

GOKHAN BACIK: The solution for me is to guarantee their interests in the region. Otherwise, they will keep perceiving the Syrian problem not as a problem of human rights or authoritarianism, but a problem of their own national interests.

KENYON: But he knows that this type of solution would be anathema to those who have long sought to sever the Damascus-Tehran connection.

In the meantime, as allegations of atrocities by loyalist forces pile up, so do signs that arming the largely unknown Syrian opposition could have unintended consequences. The latest report from Human Rights Watch details accounts of serious human rights abuses by opposition fighters.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program