Last act for Assad.
The NATO decision to deploy highly advanced surface-to-air missiles in southern Turkish provinces near the Syrian border has fundamentally altered the equation in the Syrian proxy battle fought among regional and global powers. While this move has militarized the Syrian conflict further, it also sent a strong signal that Turkey and its allies in the West and in the region are determined to oust Assad from power, paving the way for a political transition to stabilize a country that is already mired in a bloody civil war. As part of NATO contingency plans, Turkey was given not only missile batteries but was also provided with hundreds of soldiers to man and operate these batteries, effectively turning Turkey's southeastern provinces into a front line for the coming fight with Assad.
While the military wing of the opposition is getting more arms from outside and from the arms caches they seized from Syrian forces loyal to Assad, the political wing is receiving more funds and broader recognition from an increasing number of countries in the world. The Friends of Syria meeting next week in Morocco will be crucial in devising a roadmap for the post-Assad era, and I suppose a grand bargain will take place on the sidelines of the meeting as well.
Russia's strongman, President Vladimir Putin, the main international backer of the Syrian regime, signaled for the first time in ystanbul this week that Moscow has started disengaging itself from the Assad regime. The fact that he underlined Russia is not an advocate of the minority regime there means Russia is surely coming around. It is widely being speculated here in Ankara circles that Turkey's powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoy-an, struck a deal with Putin during the high-level intergovernmental meeting.
There are two main worries that Turkey and its friends need to tackle right now. One is to make sure that Assad forces do not deploy Syria's chemical arsenal and that the arsenal does not fall into the hands of armed groups in the opposition that may be inclined to use these against others either in Syria or in neighboring countries. The second worry is to prevent the Syrian state from total collapse amid the armed opposition takeover without a political transition team taking its place. As many countries have stakes in the Syrian conflict from Gulf countries to the US, from Israel to Turkey, jockeying for power should be coordinated, and a deal among powers must be reached for a smooth transition.
Disarming disparate groups in the post-Assad era once the regime collapses and maintaining law and order until an election and constitutional processes are completed will be a challenge for Turkey and its partners who are for the time being committed to the territorial integrity of the Arab country. There needs to be a new national reconciliation drive to keep the country intact and to prevent it from fragmentation and dismemberment. Most importantly, renegade armed groups -- whether they are secessionists from aspirant Kurds or radical Sunni groups supported by Saudis and Qataris or Nusayri militias trained and equipped by Iran -- ought to be neutralized.
Originally, the rough deadline for closing the Assad chapter was early 2013. But as evidence emerges that Assad forces are moving chemical weapons from army depots into the field, it may be sooner than we think that the US-led coalition will have to intervene in Syria to neutralize this growing threat. The immediate deployment of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey has in fact targeted Syrian missiles in case the regime decides to arm them with chemical warheads. The US has also offered to send Patriots to Jordan but decided to drop the idea after Israel gave assurances that it will provide security cover to Jordan in the event of an attack by Syria.
The US has already positioned its naval power in the Mediterranean to provide aerial/naval cover for a possible military strike against Syria. The USS Eisenhower Strike Group joined the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group in the eastern Mediterranean, armed with fighter jets and Aegis missile interceptors. America has intensified its intelligence activities in Syria, trying to predict the next play the Assad regime is contemplating before Damascus actually puts it into practice.
In the meantime, to beef up security for NATO fighter jets, the opposition forces were directed to destroy important radar installations in Syria to cripple air defense systems so that it does not pose a serious threat to looming NATO operations. The opposition already overran some of these radar bases in the south, terminating radar sweeps that provide real time intelligence to Assad command headquarters. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's remarks this week saying that Ankara knows the locations of some 700 missiles the regime possesses and is tracking their movement should be read as Turkey having completed its contingency plans to take them out in case of an intervention.
The withdrawal of UN personnel from Syria is another indication that the Syrian conflict has entered a new phase. The decision to suspend UN operations in Syria and pull out non-essential staff is a harbinger of a looming military operations endorsed by NATO. On Friday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid a visit to Ankara, meeting with Turkish officials, including President Abdullah GE-l, to discuss the ramifications of military engagement with the Syrian regime with regard to the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. Turkey has some 200,000 Syrian refugees in its territory and is pressing world powers to set up a buffer zone within Syria to take care of their growing numbers.
In the ystanbul meeting, Putin, borrowing from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's loaded gun act, said if there is a rifle hanging on the wall at the outset of the play, it ought to be fired by the time the last curtain falls. I think we are already in the last act in the Syrian crisis, and the rifle hanging on the wall will definitely shoot Assad down, right about the time Assad's itchy finger is placed on the trigger of weapons armed with poisonous chemicals.
ABDULLAH BOZKURT (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CyHAN
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