As Libyan rebel troops gathered to deal a deathblow to the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli, the broadest coalition yet gathered of Syria’s political opposition met in Istanbul to plan how to do the same to President Bashar al-Assad. Senior members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, leaders of recent street protests, and exiled Syrian intellectuals gathered for the first time under one roof to thrash out nominees for a 120-member “transitional council,” an important step toward filling the dangerous power vacuum that the fall of Assad would leave. At the same time international pressure piled up on Assad, with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calling him “as irrelevant to Syria's future as Gaddafi is to Libya's”—echoing President Barack Obama’s call on Assad to step aside last week.
But a more serious indication that Assad is running out of room for maneuver is not Washington’s condemnation but Ankara’s. At the beginning of the Arab Spring and the first opposition demonstrations in the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs in April, Turkey worked hard to preserve the status quo in Syria–while at the same time pressing Assad to introduce reforms and lay off bloody crackdowns. Ankara even sent Turkish National Intelligence (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan and other top intelligence officials to liaise with the notorious Syrian Muhabarat secret police. At the same time, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu played go-between, briefing Assad on where the White House stood on different Middle East issues, including Syria, while MIT agents on the ground kept the CIA abreast of developments.
Over the last two weeks, though, Turkey seems to have lost patience with the Assad regime. “We believed that giving [Assad] a last chance during my latest visit to Syria, before the international community spoke out, would be a good move,” Davutoglu told reporters over the weekend. “This current condition is not sustainable; the Syrian administration needs to realize that.” Instead of following a road map proposed by Davutoglu which included withdrawal of tanks from Syrian cities and from the border with Turkey, Assad stepped up military operations against opposition demonstrators in a bloody crackdown that human-rights groups estimate has cost more than 2,000 lives. “It is not about pressure from the outside,” said Davutoglu. “The Syrian administration must make peace with its own people.”
Turkey’s distancing itself from the Assad regime leaves Damascus with few friends apart from its old allies, the Iranians. But in military and diplomatic terms there’s little Tehran can do to influence events on the ground in Syria. Turkey, on the other hand, is a crucial player. Turkey is Syria’s largest trading partner, with exports to Syria nearly doubling between 2005 and 2010. A deal signed by Davutoglu in 2007 created a free-trade zone and abolished visas–though after 12,000 refugees fled across the border into the Turkish province of Hatay in June, trade has declined sharply. Most important, Turkey has an important stake in the future political stability of Syria because upheavals in Syria’s large Kurdish population would quickly spill over into Turkey itself.
The key question is what Turkey will actually do if further unrest threatens to unseat Assad. Last week in a series of background briefings to handpicked Turkish newspaper editors, the Turkish foreign ministry pointedly refused to rule out the prospect of military intervention, though “only on condition of a United Nations resolution … and as a last option,” according to Murat Yetkin, editor in chief of the daily Radikal. “Ankara believes that the U.N. concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is legitimate when a regime’s actions against its own people … becomes a systematic violation of human rights,” senior foreign ministry briefers told Yetkin. At the same time, “if Assad falls, there’s not much that Turkey can do to avoid a civil war,” in Syria, according to one Western diplomatic observer at Saturday’s opposition conference not authorized to speak on the record. The lack of any figure from Syria’s majority Sunni community with any international credibility is also a major problem for any post-Assad settlement. Abdul Halim Khaddam, an old ally of Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez Assad who defected to France in 2005, is the highest-ranking Sunni among the exiles. Turkey and the international community have “serious questions about the blood on his hands,” from the 20 years he was Hafez Assad’s No. 2, says the Western diplomat.
Assad over the weekend warned against Libya-style military intervention, saying, "Any military action against Syria will bring repercussions that [the West] cannot tolerate"–a hint that terrorism could be part of Syria’s response to any attack. The Syrian opposition, for its part, has said it does not want Western countries to interfere. Instead, delegates at last Saturday’s conference in Istanbul focused on creating "a credible voice for the democratic revolution," said Syrian political scientist Wael Merza. "We need to have a road map for a transition and unity among the opposition."
All hinges now on whether Assad’s brutal crackdown has actually put an end to the protests—or marked the beginning of the end of the regime. “Making statements is easy; changing reality is not,” prominent Syrian human-rights activist and former judge Haitham al-Maleh told the National Salvation Congress over the weekend. How much that reality will change is now in the hands of the Syrian street.