Thursday, May 23, 2013

Henri Barkey suggests that, on Syria, Turkey should put its money where its mouth is

In an interview with NBC News a few weeks ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared quite explicitly and emphatically
that his country will support a US-enforced no-fly zone in Syria.

[Erdogan added] that President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against his opponents meant that the Syrian regime had already crossed US President Barack Obama's so-called red line "a long time ago".

"Right from the beginning ... we would say 'yes'," Erdogan told NBC when asked if Turkey, a NATO member that shares its longest border with Syria, would support a no-fly zone.  [....]
Since the Assad regime has an air force and the rebels have none, grounding that air force would be a tremendous blow to the regime's military strength and a tremendous boon to the rebels.

=>  A friend of mine had this reaction, which he sent me via e-mail:
Did you see Erdogan saying that he would support a US-led no-fly zone in Syria?  I believe that he leads a very large country with a top-tier military that is next door to Syria and directly affected by the conflict.  Why doesn't Turkey lead the no-fly zone?  Talk about chicken hawks...
There are two possible answers to my friend's question.  First of all, while it's certainly correct that Turkey's military power far outweighs Syria's, enforcing a no-fly zone is a tricky matter.  Syria's anti-aircraft system is pretty sophisticated, and it could pose a significant risk to Turkish planes flying over Syria.  It's true that the Israelis have managed to neutralize or evade it several times over the years, but it's unlikely that the capacities of the Turkish air force come close to matching those of the Israeli air force in this respect.  The US air force is a different matter.  And for the Turkish government to take this initiative on its own, without collaboration with the US and its European allies, would involve considerable political and diplomatic risks.

Those points would all be correct, by the way.

On the other hand, one could also argue that, despite all that, my friend was basically right.

=>  It so happens that Henri Barkey, an acute analyst of Middle Eastern politics in general and of Turkey in particular, argued in a recent piece that "Turkey must lead the way on creating safe havens in Syria". As Barkey points out, governments and publics in the Middle East have often complained that the US invariably makes a mess of things when it gets involved in the region, with disastrous consequences, and have insisted that regional powers should be allowed to find regional solutions instead. If they really mean that seriously, Barkey observes, this might be a good time to start putting those slogans into practice. The US government should invite them to take the initiative in dealing with the Syrian crisis, while offering to provide effective but strictly limited assistance for any regional solution they put together.
On the eve of the Iraq war in 2003 many regional powers - including the Turks who went out of their way to organise conferences of like-minded states - tried to dissuade the United States from invading by arguing that Saddam Hussein was a regional problem, to be dealt with by the regional countries. There was no need therefore for US boots on the ground.

The Obama administration could now learn from that time and argue that it is willing to support and help any action that the regional states - Turkey would be essential to any such project - might undertake against the Assad regime.  [....]

This approach is not only relatively safe for the Obama administration, but it is reasonable. If this crisis is directly affecting the regional powers, they need to share the burden of solving it.  [....]

If the regional powers did not step up their response under those conditions, they would still have to face the consequences of the civil war on their own populations, security infrastructure and resources. They would not, however, be able to put the blame on the United States and its western allies.
That last point strikes me as a bit optimistic (and perhaps Barkey meant it to be taken with a touch of irony?). However the Syrian catastrophe turns out, "the United States and its western allies" will probably wind up getting blamed, somehow or other.

But that's a secondary matter.  Barkey's analysis is worth reading—and pondering—in full. Here's most of it:
[....]  Pressure on America to do something is mounting, not just from within the US but also from regional powers.

King Abdullah of Jordan, who recently visited the White House and whose country is feeling the enormous strain caused by Syrian refugees, implored the United States to take the lead.

And the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is scheduled to meet President Obama on Thursday, and is likely to use the occasion to make the same kind of plea. The visit comes on the heels of twin car bombings in southern Turkey on Sunday, attacks linked to Syria that will serve as a reminder of the risks Turkey faces from the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration has so far refused to engage in Syria militarily although the signs are that it may now consider changing its policy, moving towards providing the rebel side with lethal ordnance and related material.

Syria, however, is not an American problem but first and foremost a regional one. The human suffering in more than two years of war has been and is horrific, and is likely to get a lot worse before it is over.

So far the crisis is affecting countries in the region primarily by causing an outflow of refugees. This has increased Sunni-Shi'a tensions, undermined traditional borders, and given rise to new actors, most notably Al Qaeda-linked ones such as the Jabhat Al Nusra.

The regional balances are also being turned upside down: Turkey and Qatar seem to be working together against a coalition composed of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. [JW: That is, those two blocs seem to be supporting different factions within the anti-regime forces.] All of those countries are nominally on the same side against Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese armed activists of Hizbollah.

While American domestic critics heap much scorn on the administration's reluctance to intervene unilaterally and militarily in Syria, no one has put together a working plan about how exactly America could best intervene - and what the US exit strategy would be.

Instead, the argument that is often advanced is that doing nothing is riskier than doing something. The critics assume (or, to be more accurate, they hope) that things will somehow work out well in the end. But in complex societal breakdowns and civil wars such as Syria's, this is never the case.

We all know that if the United States were to take the lead and intervene, it would end up "owning" Syria and would be committed to rebuilding it.

In the words of former US secretary of state Colin Powell, the proverbial Pottery Barn rule would apply: "If you break it you buy it." Never mind that Syria is beyond broken already.

Interventionists also underestimate the unwillingness of the ordinary people in the region to countenance yet another American military adventure in their midst. More importantly, they vastly overestimate how thankful the Syrian public will be once Mr Al Assad is removed; anti-Americanism is an ingrained phenomenon across the whole region.

So what can be done?

On the eve of the Iraq war in 2003 many regional powers - including the Turks who went out of their way to organise conferences of like-minded states - tried to dissuade the United States from invading by arguing that Saddam Hussein was a regional problem, to be dealt with by the regional countries. There was no need therefore for US boots on the ground.

The Obama administration could now learn from that time and argue that it is willing to support and help any action that the regional states - Turkey would be essential to any such project - might undertake against the Assad regime.

This could entail air attacks on Syrian air defence installations and airbases, in support of a Turkish and allied attempt to create safe havens at both ends of Syria. This could be undertaken on the understanding that under no circumstances would there be any US military units on the ground. At the same time, Sunday's violence demonstrates that Turkey is not insulated from possible Syrian meddling.

This approach is not only relatively safe for the Obama administration, but it is reasonable. If this crisis is directly affecting the regional powers, they need to share the burden of solving it.

It is likely that the Turks and others would recoil at the idea of sending in their own troops; they too have public opinion to heed. It has been easy for them so far to put the onus on the Obama administration.

Were the US to offer its support to a Turkish-Arab intervention in this way, before long the regional powers would have to seriously reconsider their options for acting to end the crisis.

If the regional powers did not step up their response under those conditions, they would still have to face the consequences of the civil war on their own populations, security infrastructure and resources. They would not, however, be able to put the blame on the United States and its western allies.
—Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. Incidentally, if anyone is wondering whether I think that, back in 2002-2003, there actually was no realistically available "regional solution" to the problem posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq ... the answer is yes, that is what I think. In many respects, though, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a Very Special Case. The current Syrian crisis also poses complex and difficult problems, but they're not precisely the same problems. Maybe this time around the regional powers, many of whom are already deeply involved in Syria's civil war, can make constructive contributions toward finding a solution, or at least avoiding the most cataclysmic worst-case scenarios. I'm not optimistic, but I guess we'll see.)

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