By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
The ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Istanbul ended with a pledge of qualified support for the Annan plan while agreeing on concrete measures to undermine it. Saudi Arabia and other gulf states are going to stump up the money to turn the so-called Free Syrian Army into a fully-fledged mercenary army. Saudi Arabia and Qatar had previously said that they intended to spend millions of dollars arming the ‘rebels’ and at the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference, the US, Britain and the gulf states agreed to spend millions more on providing the armed groups with unspecified ‘humanitarian’ assistance and ‘communications equipment’. The gulf states are also hoping their money will lure Syrian soldiers into defecting.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar operate on the basis of human cupidity and greed. They must be surprised on those occasions when they discover that not everyone has a price. Late last year the Qatari Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jasim al Thani, was reported to have offered Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Muallim $100 million and permanent residence in Qatar if he would defect. The occasion was a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah. Muallim declined, asking in return, rhetorically of course, how much money Qatar had spent so far internationally and regionally to deepen the crisis in Syria. This follows on from the money Qatar spent on the destruction of the Libyan government.
In February eight million Syrians voted for political reform that will usher in a multi-party political system and will remove the Baath party as the central pillar of state and society. The armed gangs have been chased out of the cities where they had dug themselves in. Human rights groups and the media are finally drawing attention to what they have wilfully ignored for months, the extreme violence of the FSA and other groups of armed men, directed against soldiers and civilians. Recently Der Spiegel, rightwing and openly hostile to the Assad government, ran an article on the executioners of Homs, the men who were taking the captives of the FSA to a burial ground and cutting their throats. Interesting that none of the correspondents smuggled across the border into Homs seem to have picked this up before.
If there is a role for any outside party surely it should be to help wind down the conflict in Syria, not wind it up, yet this is precisely what the ‘Friends of Syria’ are doing. Will Ban Ki-Moon or Kofi Annan have anything to say about this? They have a peace plan which cannot possibly work as long as its ostensible supporters are working to undermine it. Syria has accepted the Annan plan but has made the obvious point that it cannot pull its soldiers and tanks off the streets unless the armed gangs lay down their weapons. Here we have Saudi Arabia and Qatar shelling out money to ensure they keep fighting, with the backing of the other ‘Friends of Syria’. We can see what this is intended to produce, a situation in which every time the Syrian army is involved in conflict with armed groups it will be blamed for violating the Annan plan. All the ‘rebels’ have to do is keep shooting. This is exactly what their peace-loving supporters meeting in Istanbul want them to do.
If there is a proper name for the group that met in Istanbul it should be the Bad Losers’ Conference. These people have thrown everything into the struggle to bring down the Syrian government. They have plotted and conspired. They have used their media and they have thrown money and weapons at the ‘rebels’ but they have failed. Assad – abused and insulted by them – is still there and more on top of the situation than he was a little while ago. It should be ‘game over’ but Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, are determined to play on irrespective of the cost in human lives and destruction to Syria and its people.
Hillary Clinton or her public relations machine tried to give the impression that she was in Saudi Arabia to talk the Saudis out of doing anything rash. More likely she was there to frame how the next steps would be taken, with Saudi Arabia stepping out in front and the US appearing to follow on behind. There is no point in saying anything about Clinton. She is what she is and no comment is needed. The Saudis are driven by their own agenda, which is to set up a Sunni Muslim wall against Iran and Shi’ism across the Middle East. Does anyone seriously think they have the best interests of the Syrian people at heart?
As for Turkey, its relationships with near neighbors have been transformed in the space of a year from good to bad. Insofar as Syria is concerned, the Turkish Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister have burnt their bridges. It is either them or Assad from now on. Certainly there can be no resumption of good relations as long as he or they remain in government. Someone has to go and they are determined it is going to be him. Alienating Syria has meant alienating Iran and raising the suspicions of the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, which has strongly opposed Turkey’s line on Syria. In January the two countries exchanged harsh words over the warrant for arrest issued against Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a Sunni Muslim accused of organising death squads used against Shia Muslims. Fleeing to Kurdistan, Mr Hashimi has now turned up as a guest of the ruler of Qatar. He denies being ‘part of Turkey’s geopolitical project’ but admits to receiving ‘advice’ from Turkey and has stated that he feels ‘indebted’ to the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for ‘making statements on my case’.
These amounted to the view that Mr Hashimi was being pursued because he was a Sunni Muslim. At a party meeting in Ankara, the Turkish Prime Minister, responding to Iraqi accusations of meddling, said that ‘Mr Maliki [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, a Shia] should know very well that if you initiate a period of clashes in Iraq based on sectarian strife it is impossible for us to remain silent’. The refusal of the Kurdish governorate to hand Mr Hashemi over to the government in Baghdad deepens the divide between these two centres of power in Iraq. The warm welcome Mr Hashimi was given in Qatar is further evidence of the broader divide that is taking shape in the Middle East, with the US, the EU, the Gulf states and Turkey standing on one side and Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Russia and China on the other.
After the meeting of the ‘Friends of Syria’ in Istanbul, Nuri al Maliki strongly condemned the decision of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to give further support to the armed groups in Syria. ‘We reject any arming [of Syrian rebels] and the process to overthrow the regime because this will leave a greater crisis in the region. The stance of these two states is very strange. They are calling for sending arms instead of working to put out the fire and they will hear our voice, that we are against arming and against foreign interference. We are against the interference of some countries in Syria’s internal affairs and those countries that are interfering in Syria’s internal affairs will interfere in the internal affairs of any country’.
His position is shared by Egypt, whose Foreign Minister, Muhammad Kamal Amr said after the Istanbul meeting that ‘arming the Syrian opposition, as Egypt sees it, will increase the rate of killings and will transform the situation in Syria as a whole to full-scale civil war’. Egypt’s misgivings are certain to be shared by other Arab governments, suggesting that in their single-minded pursuit of the Syrian government and their continued support for armed ‘resistance’ the gulf states and Turkey are very much in a regional minority.
In confronting Syria, Turkey inevitably alienated Iran and further exacerbated relations by agreeing to give the US the right to instal an anti-missile radar station on its soil. Its only possible use could be to forestall missile retaliation in the event of an attack on Iran by the US or Israel (or both). Turkey has tried to placate Iran but insofar as Syria is concerned Iran is standing firm. It knows full well that it is next on the chopping block.
A perceptible nervousness about the actions of the government is beginning to appear in the Turkish media. In confronting Syria in such a belligerent manner and giving support to an armed group carrying out attacks in a neighboring state, the government has opened a new chapter in Turkey’s foreign policy. The legal dimensions of this policy are now coming up for scrutiny. Writing in Hurriyet Daily News, Yusuf Kanli made the following observation: ‘In the absence of a declaration of war or authorisation by parliament, it is a crime under Turkish law to allow Turkish territory to be used for hostile purposes against any neighboring country. Turkey is hosting scores of rebel commanders and there are serious claims that the rebel forces are receiving arms through Turkish territory. With almost 50 per cent electoral support, the current Turkish government can escape all kinds of accountability but as electoral support cannot last forever, tomorrow may be bleak, particularly if the effort to change the Syrian regime fails’.
Well, up till now it has failed and the continued attempt to drive Bashar al Assad out of office is going to cost more lives than the thousands who have died so far. As Syria is not just the will of one man, contrary to the image projected by the media, what would this achieve anyway? Rather than back off and throw their weight behind a peaceful solution, the ‘Friends of Syria’ decided to continue their campaign of support for the armed men at the precise moment Kofi Annan is calling on everyone to lay down their arms. The logic is Macbeth’s. They have gone so far in this venture that ‘returning were as tedious as go o’er’ but it is Syria and Syrians who will have to pay the price for their decision to keep going.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.