Ankara holds its breath
The recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Russia has done little to bridge the gulf between the two countries on the handling of the Syrian crisis, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid in Ankara
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A citizen journalism image of a fireball in Homs, Sunday; damaged buildings at Juret Al-Shayah, Homs, Syria, Monday
Addressing a throng of his supporters in the central Anatolian city of Eskigehir, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed this week that the days of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria were numbered. At the same time, Turkish news stations were broadcasting reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had declared that Al-Assad would not be stepping down because he was "supported by the Syrian people".
Clearly Ankara's and Moscow's official stances are at odds, but the Turkish prime minister may nevertheless have thought that he would be able to persuade the Russians to soften theirs, even if this confidence may have been misplaced.
Moscow did not side with Turkey on the question of the Turkish reconnaissance plane that was downed by Syrian defence forces last month, for example, with Russian officials holding that Syria was merely exercising its legitimate right to self-defence, in keeping with international law.
Moreover, at the same time as the Turkish prime minister was arriving in Moscow on 18 July for a short official visit to Russia during which the Syrian crisis would have topped the agenda, Kõlõs, a city in south-east Anatolia close to the Syrian border, was still reeking of the teargas that the Turkish police had used to disperse a crowd of Syrian refugees protesting about the lack of water and electricity in the refugee camp.
While there seem to have been grounds for the grievances -- some families had even chosen to return to Syria because conditions under the Al-Assad regime seemed better than the wretchedness of the camp -- it was also apparent that pro-Al-Assad elements had exploited their grievances to cause embarrassment to the Turkish government.
The events darkened the cloud of suspicion that already hovered over the meetings between the Turkish prime minister and senior Russian officials in Moscow, prime among the latter being Russian president Vladimir Putin.
However high Erdogan's hopes of his visit to Russia may have been, it was unlikely from the start that he would be able to make the Kremlin budge on its position on Syria, and the visit concluded with a diplomatically worded joint statement to the effect that both sides felt it necessary to resolve the crisis through "political and diplomatic means".
This would have done little to mask the distance between them, as Ankara wants to see a Syria without al-Assad, meaning that he and his ruling Baath Party regime will have to go, in Turkish eyes, if the crisis is to be resolved. Moscow, on the other hand, remains a staunch supporter of the regime in Damascus, which it believes still offers the best safeguard for Russia's strategic interests in the region.
Russian inflexibility on the Syrian crisis has been strengthened by concerns that the alternative to the Baathist regime may be the rise of an Islamist government in Syria, which Russia fears could encourage Chechen rebels in the Russian Federation, threatening Russian security.
Russia is also alarmed by the prospect of Syrian Islamists gaining control over the regime's stockpiles of weapons, especially in view of the fact that Chechen partisans are thought to be fighting in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
During his visit to Moscow, the Turkish prime minister met with a hail of criticism in the Russian press and elsewhere, accused of promoting the agenda of the Syrian armed insurgents that are supported by Europe and the US.
However, Erdogan's policy towards Turkey's southern neighbour is also not popular at home, where similar criticisms have been mounting, Deputy Prime Minister Bÿlent Arõnç recently lashing out at the press in Turkey for its "speculations" about the downing of the Turkish military jet, suggesting that it had deliberately penetrated Syrian airspace.
Arõnç insisted that records show that the plane was hit 13 miles off the Syrian coast, and he cautioned Turkish reporters against falling for foreign "disinformation".
Adding fuel to the fire, the Turkish newspaper the Aydõnlõk Gazette reported recently that US "mercenaries" hailing from Afghanistan and Libya were operating in southern Anatolia without interference on the part of the Turkish security agencies.
The newspaper said that the soldiers had waited until nightfall in order to infiltrate into Syrian territory in order to carry out various missions, and Turkish MP Rafik Yõlmaz, who represents the border town of Hatay, expressed the anger of his constituents at the presence of American soldiers in the region in remarks made in the Turkish parliament.
Yõlmaz, a member of the opposition Republican People's Party (RPP), added that operatives from the notorious Blackwater Security firm, a private US company contracted by the US department of defense in Iraq and elsewhere, had apparently also moved into Syria from Turkish territory with the blessing of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP).
In the face of such developments, the Turkish presidency and cabinet seem to have adopted a policy of wait and see, perhaps also trying to forget, at least for the time being, the incident of the downed Turkish plane, though this may not necessarily preclude the possibility of further action that could have disastrous consequences.
Ten days ago, the Turkish daily Sabah claimed that Turkish F-16 fighters stationed at the Incirlik air base in the south of the country had received instructions to prepare themselves for a strike against Syrian air defences and other military targets in retaliation for the downing of the F-4 reconnaissance plane on 22 June.
The paper added that the government had only changed its mind at the last minute, following consultations with the chairman of the chiefs-of-staff and Turkish air force commanders.
The latter had judged the Russian-made missile defence system in Syria to be "extremely sophisticated", with the Turkish armed forces not possessing sufficient information on it to risk a military strike.
Turkish officials may also have feared that an airstrike against Syria would damage Turkey's image in the Arab world at a time when Turkey has been working to promote peace, stability and democracy in the Middle East following the uprisings of the Arab Spring.
There may also have been an economic dimension to the decision to call off the operation, since military action against Syria could jeopardise commercial ties with Russia, Turkey's second-largest trade partner after Germany.
Such considerations would have carried considerable weight, although precisely how much weight it is difficult to say when measured against the pressures, complexities and uncertainties of the Syrian crisis.