10 October 2012, 13:02

Syrian opposition a child of Al Qaeda - expert

Syrian opposition a child of Al Qaeda - expert
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Halil Karaveli, Senior Fellow with the Turkey Initiative at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, weighs in on the Syrian crisis and the role that the so-called "extremist elements" are playing in this conflict

Who would be interested in bringing Turkey into the conflict with Syria?

The rebels, of course, because they will not succeed as it looks in overthrowing Assad without a foreign intervention. And it is a messy story. But I think first of all the rebels would be interested in bringing Turkey and Turkey is interested in bringing the US. So, the rebels are not going to win on their own. Turkey is not going to win on its own. So, the rebels need Turkey and Turkey needs America.

And America is not willing to go to war in Syria.

No, not yet, even though if that guy Romney is elected President. In his recent statements he has said that he is going to arm the Syrian opposition. And of course it might be according to evidence and some speculation in Turkey that perhaps it not the Syrian regime but the Iranians who want to bring in Turkey in a way just to defeat them. But I don’t think actually that the Iranians will be interested in bringing in Turkey to Syria right now because it seems that, what I understand is that Assad is kind of consolidating his position with the support of the Iranians and perhaps some support from Russians. And the population is not rising against him anymore.

You don’t see these big Sunni uprisings there and the Sunni middle class has not turned against Assad yet. And I think that the main reason for that is that the so called Syrian opposition is almost a child of Al Qaeda and Salafits and this is a pure terrorism. And many in the Syrian Sunni Muslim middle class, who perhaps are not so enthusiastic about Assad, are not enthusiastic about the terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists coming to power. This is something that so far has not been noticed internationally that the scene in Syria doesn’t look exactly as it did couple of months ago. And since this Islamist Al Qaeda and Salafist element has grown so strong within the rebels, that has actually made it easier for Assad to face a standoff. And it appeared that the forecast that said that he was going to fall, he doesn’t fall and he doesn’t seem on the brink of falling either.

The extremists are now prevailing in the opposition.

Definitely, because they are the ones who know how to fight. They have the fighting experience from Afghanistan and other places and they have been pouring in to Syria from Afghanistan, Yemen and Caucasus. This has become a gathering for Jihadists. Of course there is a big prize for them to win if they would be able to establish a base of the new Al Qaeda within the Arabs and the Muslim Middle East – that would be a huge victory and their biggest victory so far for Al Qaeda.

Well, definitely that needs to be prevented somehow.

That needs to be prevented and that is also the main reason why the US is not supporting Turkey and not willing to go alone establishing this no-fly zone.

But it has already been established de facto.

Not the no-fly zone. What the Turks have done is that they have said that we will engage the Syrian troops who come close to our border. Of course the Syrians have still come pretty close to that border and there is no shooting down of Syrian helicopters or stuff like that. But there is no no-fly zone. I think the main question that we should address today – what is Turkey aiming to do? Is Turkey going to go to a war? That is the main question, isn’t it?

But why would it want to go to a war? As far as I understand after the Parliament had voted on the resolution there were street protests. But if you remember Sunday, Mr. Erdogan was saying that Turkey is very close to war with Syria. And if the need arises, like he put it, even old people will take up arms. What is he preparing us for?

This is big mystery actually and a lot of Turkish commentators are trying to make sense of what is happening. To sum it up – what does Turkey want? First of all, Turkey wants to get rid of Assad and they want to precipitate the regime change in Syria. And the fact that they have the Parliament authorized military operations abroad, not only in Syria but abroad, that the text does not refers specifically to Syria, only to foreign countries, which is in plural, and it means that that is the way of demonstrating a political will to do something and it is also meant to be a deterrent against Assad because Syria and Iran are arming and helping the Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Which means that what is happening is that Turkey jumped onboard more than a year ago thinking that Assad was going to fall quickly and started to help the insurgents in Syria arming them in the hope that they would soon be able to topple Assad which has not happened. Instead Assad and his main Iranian allies have been fighting back Turkey by supporting the Kurdish insurgents. So, this is an extremely dangerous situation for Turkey. They have committed themselves to bring down Assad but they are not able to do it, they have not been able to do it so far, instead Assad is retaliating. So, in that case Erdogan has to make it clear that he is the force to recommence to. And my information is that the Turkish Government has ordered the General Staff for a couple of months ago to prepare for a big war.

So, war preparations are on the way and the Turkish Army is moving more and more massive troops on the border. This means that Turkey is going to go in there by itself. That is not something that they want to do, definitely not, because they know that they might be able to defeat the Syrian Army but left with taking charge of the post-Assad Syria alone would be a disaster for Turkey. And it is also by no means certain that they will not get stuck in the Syrian Desert. And it is all surrounded by all kinds of dangers. You know what happened to the US in Iraq and it was not a success for the US. So, for a much smaller power like Turkey to succeed and prevail in Syria – that is not going to happen.

What Turkey needs – from its own strategic point of view Turkey needs to remove Assad because he has become a threat to its own security by his help to the Kurdish insurgents. And Turkey is preparing to do that but it cannot do it alone, it has to be together with the US and the Western allies. And so far Turkey has been unable to persuade the US to act. Erdogan even complained a couple of weeks ago when he was interviewed at the CNN that Obama was not forthcoming. So, Turkey is in a very difficult position. Also the Iranians have warned that they are going to fight back if Turkey acts against Syria. And what that might be, you know, we might end up with a big regional war between Turkey and Iran eventually.

So, there are a lot of huge risks there. And of course in the situations like this, things can get out of hand by themselves, they have their own dynamics where the actors eventually may end up and they cannot foresee that. But number one thing is that Turkey does want to get rid of Assad and it is prepared to move militarily against him. But number two is that Turkey is not able to do that alone, it has to have the US and Western help. And as things stand today – Turkey is quite in a dilemma – because it has started something in Syria which it is unable to finish. So, and that’s Turkish dilemma.

And very interesting, just today I’ve read in a pro-Government Turkish newspaper an article by one of the leading Turkish strategists to whom the Government listens, and he said that – we cannot do it alone and we might even consider the unthinkable – to talk to Bashar Assad. That I find very interesting. So, on the one hand you hear Erdogan deploying a rhetoric that conjures the vision of no other variant than Turkey is going to go to war. And a second, what you really hear from inside the Government circles is that they are concerned about the situation because Turkey is under a threat and it cannot finish what it has started. So, what we have seen today is actually a total fiasco of the Turkish foreign policy.

It is very interesting, the option which you have mentioned as entering into talks with Assad. You said that it is something unthinkable. But I believe that would be a very wise move to do, it would be very mature to do that.

Yes, of course it is something that should have been done much earlier and the whole Syrian crisis should have been managed in a way that they should have engaged the regime and they should have engaged of course the opposition and other parts of the Syrian society bringing them together. But Turkey thought that Syria was going to be like Libya and that the regime was going to be toppled very quickly. And Turkey just thought that in Libya we missed the chance and let the fronts take the lead and now we are not going to let that happen, we are going to take the lead and bring our friends in the Muslim Brotherhood to power. So, it seemed a win-win situation for Turkey.

And the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is a totally delusional character. He was in Ukraine a couple of days ago and he said once again that – we are the game setter in the Middle East, we are the ones who are going to order the whole region. The thing is that the Turkish Government is finding it difficult to impose orders within its own borders.

Do you think that finishing of Assad would actually calm the Kurdish insurgency? I’m not sure.

No. Of course what you are looking at is a regional conflagration.

Yes, that’s it!

And also you will not be able to get rid of it because Iranians have said they in that case would retaliate.

Which means that this is not an option.

This is not an option. The only realistic option is that they scale back their aggressive policy. Turkey has to step back from the brink of war, it has to cease actually. Turkey is de facto a belligerent in the Syrian conflict as it is arming the opposition and supporting it. So, it has to stop doing that and return to a diplomatic solution, to a sort of a political solution with Syria. That’s the only way if Turkey wants to avoid ending up in a wider conflagration.

However, I suspect, I fear that that is what is going to happen. What we are going to have is the situation getting out of hand. And what we are seeing is actually the repeat of what the Americans did under Bush in Iraq. They thought that they could come to the Middle East, order it and get out and they ended up in a total disaster. But Turkey, a much smaller power, is repeating the old US neo-conservative mistake. Actually Erdogan and Davutoğlu – those are the new Bush and Cheney.

Halil, thank you so much. And just to remind our guest speaker was Halil Karaveli – Senior Fellow with the Turkey Initiative at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

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