Ankara moves on Damascus
After a visit by the US secretary of state to Istanbul, Turkey and Washington have agreed to work together to hasten the end of the Syrian regime, writes Al-Sayed Abdel-Maguid in Ankara
Not a few Turks muttered curses as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Istanbul last week for talks with senior Turkish officials, and perhaps Clinton herself will have even caught a glimpse of the demonstrator who charged towards her convoy, shouting "stop your offences against Islam and the Muslim people" as she arrived in the city.
The man was immediately arrested and brought in for questioning, and though the results of the investigations have not been made public, some observers have conjectured that he could have been an agent of the Syrian regime, told to thrust himself before the television cameras in order to rouse anti-American sympathies.
Others say that the man could have been an Iranian who had taken advantage of the situation to decry the "Great Satan," or he could have been a Turk hired for that purpose. No observer suggested that the man was an ordinary Turkish citizen unaffiliated with any particular ideological camp who merely wanted to voice his outrage at the rule of cynical opportunism and double standards.
Yet, such thoughts nevertheless concluded an article by a columnist in a small-circulation Turkish weekly last week, which criticised what it called Turkey's plunge into the embrace of the West and into the arms of the US in particular.
On the day the article appeared, a fire-fighting helicopter crashed near the south-Western coast of Turkey, killing all on board, after the Russian-made aircraft had been hired in order to try to prevent the spread of forest fires near the popular resort town of Fethiye. The crash was seen by some as a sign that Turkey had no alternative to its marriage with the US.
Clinton's visit seems to have been a last-minute arrangement, as she had been on a tour of African nations and a stop in Istanbul had not been on her original schedule. Commentators immediately started speculating that something to do with the latest developments in Syria must have cropped up, and meetings were hastily sketched in with Turkish leaders as a result.
Following the meetings, the two sides agreed to work together to hasten the fall of the regime headed by President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, aiming to set the country on course to a new future without Al-Assad but with the ruling Syrian Baath Party. A broadly sketched timeframe was also announced.
The next few weeks will probably now see steps being taken towards the creation of no-fly safe zones along the Syrian border with Turkey, especially in the light of the continued flight of Syrian refugees, which now number more than 53,000 and which observers expect to increase to 100,000.
Clinton saw no reason to hide the fact that Ankara and Washington were cooperating closely on such aims, and she confirmed reports in the Turkish press that the US embassy in Ankara had been coordinating with the Turkish government in order to give the rebel Free Syrian Army that is fighting forces loyal to Al-Assad material and military support.
Such assistance will apparently now increase, and it appears that Washington and Ankara have also been heeding the appeals of opposition groups in Syria to let their voices be heard and not for all Western assistance to be given to the opposition Syrian National Council.
Turkish alarm bells have been rung by the activities of Kurdish separatist movements in the border region contiguous with large tracts of Turkish territory in the south and south-east of the country, with reports in several newspapers stating that the Al-Assad regime is now using Kurdish separatists as proxies in a fight against Turkey.
Earlier this week, Syria released 1,200 prisoners who are members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), offering to train them in waging guerrilla warfare against Turkish military assets and infrastructure in Anatolia.
The release of the prisoners, Al-Assad's response to statements made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkey would intervene militarily in Syria if the latter continued to allow PKK elements to infiltrate the country, was meant to be provocative, luring Turkey further into the Syrian quagmire.
Meanwhile, the Turkish army has stepped up manoeuvres along the border with Syria. Tanks, troop transport vehicles, ground-to-air missiles, and other hardware have been tested for their combat abilities, and aerial-defence systems and night-surveillance cameras have been on the alert, scanning the border in anticipation of hostile movement from the Syrian side.
It was against this backdrop that Clinton earned high marks from her Turkish counterparts, particularly for her assurance that the US administration shared Turkish concerns and that it would not allow the PKK to establish bases that could threaten Turkish security.
While such words may have gladdened the powers that be in Ankara, they are unlikely to resolve the Kurdish problem, especially given the mounting threats and counter-threats and the spectre of civil war if the Kurdish people's legitimate demands are not met.
The subject of Iran also arose in Clinton's talks with Erdogan, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and she did not conceal her anger at the news that Turkey had been giving economic aid to Iran in violation of international sanctions.
However, while Davutoglu was engaged in talks in Ankara with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi, Turkish diplomats issued statements denouncing the Iranian chief-of-staff for having blamed Turkey for the deteriorating situation in Syria.
Davutoglu and Salehi may have smiled and embraced warmly before the television cameras, but that does nothing to refute the existence of tensions between the two countries. Turkey will not have been pleased with the reports aired on Iranian television to the effect that the Syrian army had arrested a Turkish general reviewing troops from the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and taken him to Damascus for questioning, for example.
This suggests that Iran has been keeping close tabs on Turkish movements with respect to Syria. Had Iranian-Turkish relations been as smooth as the television pictures suggested, the Iranian leadership would have sent a delegation to Ankara asking Turkey to use its influence to free the 48 Iranian hostages being held hostage by the Free Syrian Army.
Yet, annoyed as Ankara may have been by the provocative statements coming out of Iran, it did not feel the need to respond in kind, perhaps not wanting to risk its ties with Iran unnecessarily.
Erdogan confined himself to a diplomatically worded, but pointed statement, saying that he had been "saddened" by such remarks from a government that was "shunned by so many countries in the world and that had no stronger defender of its rights than Turkey."
Meanwhile, the conference that Iran recently hosted on the Syrian question in Tehran turned out to be an embarrassing disappointment for the country, as it indicated that Tehran had few friends, given the handful of invitees that turned up -- something that will have warmed hearts in Ankara and Washington.