While the United States is making its final preparations to strike Syrian targets, as a response to its use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb last week, Turkey is bracing for the intervention it has long-called for to end the 13-year-rule of Bashar al-Assad.
At a time when Britain, the chief stalwart wartime ally of the U.S., is sidelined after a parliamentary vote that refused to clear the way for the British government to join a campaign against Syria, the U.S. needs more allies in a war that was said to be a “multilateral action.” Turkey’s role in this intervention, however, remains a mystery. Sources and indications suggest that Turkey will play a key role in bringing about the end of the Syrian regime both during and after the intervention.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Saturday that he has decided to take military action against Syria that will be a limited, narrow action with “no boots” on the ground, avoiding an open-ended war. The intervention is expected to take place in two weeks as Congress will start debating the Syria campaign on Sept. 9. The kind of operation the U.S. is preparing to undertake in Syria, likely aided by the French navy, will involve less than four dozen targets in a very short timeframe.
Ankara is unhappy with the goal of the intervention, which is to send a signal to the Assad regime that the Western allies won’t leave the use of chemical weapons go unpunished. Turkey wants a fully-fledged military action in Syria in a bigger scale and scope that will put the regime on the brink of collapse and unleash an era of political process to normalize the country.
The military operation will make sure that the forces loyal to Assad and rebels play a “fair game.”Mahir Zeynalov
Turkey and the U.S. have long been coordinating efforts to embolden rebels fighting to oust Assad on the ground as well as pushing for a diplomatic solution to more than two years of conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced. In May this year, Obama explained to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a White House meeting, that the U.S. will never tolerate the idea of Assad remaining in power. He explained that Washington will do whatever it takes, with the help of its regional allies, to bring an end to the despotic rule of the Syrian president and his regime.
The grand strategy was clear: with the logistical help of Turkey and Jordan, the U.S. will continue arming the rebels and putting the burden on opposition fighters to finish Assad. Satisfied with the promises made by Obama and his commitment to help bring down the government of Syria, Erdoğan returned home convinced that its allies will increase the pressure on Assad by bolstering the rebels on the ground.
Red lines raise their heads
Anticipating that the departure of Assad won’t stop bloodshed in the country and that military solution to the conflict that has turned sectarian over time is not the eventual answer the U.S. wants to see a clear victory from the fighting in Syria. This would take time, Syrian blood and save direct American involvement. The use of chemical weapons, however, would constitute an “unfair playground” and the U.S. made it clear last August that the use of chemical weapons was its “red line.”
Washington designated the use of chemical weapons as a red line because it significantly shifts the balance of power on the ground against the rebels. The U.S. knew that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons multiple times this year, but avoided taking direct military action because the gas attacks didn't alter the balance of power in favor of the regime.
If carried out, the full-scale military intervention in Syria to end the rule of Assad would be in contrary to this grand strategy, a policy Obama has been pursuing for more than a year now. The limited use of force against Syria will only send a clear signal to Assad the U.S. will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. The military operation will make sure that the forces loyal to Assad and rebels play a “fair game.”
Turkey’s role remains key in taking down the Assad regime by providing important logistical help for the rebels. Opposition sources have said that the Gulf-financed arms shipment through Turkey has significantly increased since the Syrian regime used chemical weapons last Wednesday.
Down with Maher
A U.S.-led Syria campaign will most likely cripple the 4th army division led by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and the 155th brigade that is believed to have carried out the chemical attack last week, in which, according to US intelligence estimates, 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children. The U.S. missile strikes will hit key arms depot, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft defense systems and air bases housing helicopters and warplanes. The most important objective of the operation is to damage Assad’s air force as much as possible. The Patriot missile defense systems, deployed by NATO earlier this year in Turkey, could serve as a limited no-fly zone in northern Syria. Turkey will not take part militarily during the intervention but Ankara has made sure that it has prepared for a potential cross-border military operation. The Turkish government has a motion authorizing it to strike Syria which expires on Oct. 4.
Following the missile strikes on Syrian targets, it will be up to the rebels to slowly capture the cities and close in on Syria’s capital, Damascus. The training of rebels in the Turkish territory is a very sensitive domestic political issue that could put the government under close scrutiny. The U.S. troops are already training Syrian rebels in Jordan. Turkey, in this process, will help rebels get the kind of arms and ammunition they need through border crossings in southern Turkish provinces near Syria. Rebel-bound arms shipments through Turkey will increasingly continue in upcoming months.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov