The political turmoil and violence in Syria seems virtually irreversible. The Assad regime has failed to respond to international calls to end the violence. Prospects for a peaceful transition seem bleaker every passing day. As one of the biggest external stakeholders in the future of Syria, Turkey has abandoned its earlier efforts to help Syria transition to an administration responsive to its people’s demands. Turkey and the US emerged among others as the most vocal critics of the Assad regime. What are the prospects of a transition to democracy in Syria? Can there be a reversal of violence? What does future hold for Syria? What kind of an affect might Syria’s future have on the regional dynamics?
Helena Cobban, Writer and Analyst
Erol Cebeci, Executive Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kilic Kanat began with opening remarks by outlining the current situation in Syria’s ongoing unrest, noting that the Assad regime has failed to respond to international calls to end the violence. Kanat highlighted the recent decision by the Arab League to impose economic sanctions on Syria, which include travel bans on high-level senior officials, a ban on transactions with the Syrian Central Bank, and a halt to all commercial exchanges with the Syrian government. He added that Syria also faces serious pressure from the UN. A report released by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has found patterns of gross human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances.
Helena Cobban discussed key differences between Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, currently ruled by minority Alawites. One difference is the institutional development of the countries. In both Egypt and Tunisia, civil society organizations were involved in the uprisings, whereas in Syria, “you don’t have the same rich network of bar associations and journalists that operate more or less independent of the regime,” she said. Second, Syria is in a continuing state of war with Israel. Third, Syria has a unique geographic location bordering Sunni-dominated Turkey and Jordan, Shiite-dominated Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Cobban noted that Syria’s pluralistic pot of ethnicities and religious groups adds to the list of challenges.
Cobban then laid out several efforts that should be pursued by non-Syrians, including de-escalation of tensions. She stated, “Many communities in the country are opposed to a knife-edge of sectarian killings—a result of ‘fitna’.” She stressed that the international community should not provoke Syria’s long-simmering sectarian tensions. Cobban also urged for the provision of hope that is “all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds, to have a hope that they can build a future in that country.” She noted that Assad’s regime is “acting out of a large degree of fear.” On the role of Turkey, Cobban stated that “Turkey is a remarkable role model for Middle Eastern countries,” with its successful economy, improved civil-military relations and continuance of democratization process. She also urged Turkey and South Africa to cooperate as “midwives of democracy” in Syria’s transition to democracy.
Erol Cebeci focused on Turkish-Syrian bilateral relations. He noted that Turkey had been in a state of cold war with Syria during the 1990s. One of the AKP’s foreign policy successes was improving relations with Syria, as a part of its ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy. “Without questioning the legitimacy of the governments,” he said, “Turkey advocated political integration to better economical and political relations while encouraging change in the region.” He noted that Turkey was instrumental in Iraq in successfully convening different ethnic and religious groups in the election process. Cebeci also stressed that Turkey has played an important role in a few areas, including providing safe haven for Syrian refugees, working closely with the Syrian opposition and allowing them to operate from Turkey. There are currently about 10,000 refugees sheltered in Turkey.
Cebeci added that even at a time when the Bush administration was calling for the isolation of Syria, Turkey continued to invest in Turkish-Syrian relations. As early as December 2010, Turkey had been a “good friend” to the Assad regime but that relationship left in tatters after Assad failed to keep his promises of reform. As a result, “in August, Turkey shifted its Syrian policy and started to support the demands of the Syrian people.” With regards to the Arab League, Cebeci noted that “Syria is an important part of the Arab World and events in Syria will have tremendous consequences for the entire region.”
The floor was then opened to questions, which revolved mainly around the effectiveness of sanctions. Both panelists agreed that sanctions must have a goal that is, in this case, to pressure the Assad regime to end violence against the citizens of Syria. Cebeci emphasized the need for Assad to negotiate a political outcome, suggesting a possible “free exile of the entire Assad family.” Emphasizing the lack of many good options in Syria and the Syrian leadership’s refusal to lead the transition to democracy, Cebeci quoted an analyst saying, “Assad was offered a rope by Turkey to pull himself out of the well, but he decided to place it around his neck.”
The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) at Washington, D.C. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to innovative studies on national, regional, and international issues concerning Turkey and US-Turkey relations.