Turkey Seeking Peace in Syria, With Help From United States and Russia

President Obama pledges continued help for opposition but still doesn't want to arm them

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visiting President Barack Obama at the White House May 16, said that Turkey’s aim is to accelerate a peace process for Syria, where civil war drags on and casualties continue to mount.

“I will be visiting other countries, our foreign minister will be visiting other countries, just to see how we an speed things up in a way that will save more people,” he said, in a joint press conference with Obama.” Our goal is to see the tyranny and dictatorship in Syria go away, and be replaced with democracy.”

Turkey has been a major peace-broker in the region in recent years.

President Obama said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the civil war and should have left the country years ago. 

“We would’ve preferred Assad go two years ago, last year, two months ago, a month ago,” said Obama. “Assad lost legitimacy when he started firing on his own people, who were initially protesting peacefully for a greater voice in their country’s affairs.”

Since then, a civil war has broken out, and the United States has been supporting the opposition to al-Assad through supplies such as body armor and night-vision goggles. However, the U.S., as well as other Western countries, have not supplied arms to the opposition. Saudia Arabia has.

The death toll is above 70,000, according to the United Nations.

Gary Samore, who earlier this year left his post as Obama’s adviser on arms control and weapons of mass destruction, told Bloomberg that Obama has concerns about what military intervention by the United States would bring.

“From the beginning, President Obama, it seems to me, has been determined to avoid another military entanglement in Syria,” he said. “He thinks it would end up chewing up a huge amount of resources, and I think he questions whether, at the end of the day, U.S. military intervention would be positive in terms of stabilizing the situation.”

At the same time, the United States has been increasing nonlethal support for the opposition, and putting pressure on moderate opposition “to tighten their ranks and distance themselves from radical Islamist groups,”  writes Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution in an analysis.

Asked how a transition to a country without al-Assad would happen, Obama said there is “no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s.” 

“If there was, I think the prime minister and I would’ve already acted on it, and it would’ve been finished,” he said. 

Obama said those involved in the process have to “apply steady international pressure,” and both Obama and Erdogan expressed hope that peace talks that may happen in Geneva, Switzerland involving Syria, the United States, Turkey, Russia, and possibly China could end the civil war. 

“In the meantime we’re going to continue to make sure that we’re helping the opposition,” said Obama, as well as help with the humanitarian situation.

Kirişci of the Brookings Institution wrote that Erdogan is likely “likely to remind Obama quite loudly that the butchery of civilians by the Assad regime has reached levels that makes it unethical not to respond to and that, as the car bombs that exploded in Turkish border town of Reyhanli last weekend demonstrate, Turkish national security is being directly affected.”

The tipping point may have come almost one month ago, when accusations that Syria has been engaging in chemical warfare emerged.

The biggest problem is that “if the regime believes that it can use chemical warfare with impunity, the war itself—and its spillover into neighboring states—will become many times worse,” writes Kenneth Pollack, also of the Brookings Institution, in an analysis. 

“As bad as the Syrian civil war already is, if the regime is employing chemical warfare liberally, deaths will rise and panic will soar,” he writes. “Refugee flows could turn into a torrent, swamping Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Neighboring Sunni populations would become infuriated and either demand that their governments openly intervene in Syria to stop the fighting, or greatly increase the covert flow of arms, money and jihadists to the opposition. Either and both would be both probable and extremely dangerous for all of the states involved—as would any effort to resist the calls for intervention. In short, unchecked chemical warfare use could have severe repercussions for the rest of the region, and in ways that would threaten American interests.”

Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said at the White House on May 16 that the other avenue of solving the crisis—getting Russia and China involved in peace talks—”will add more impetus” to the situation. 

Russia’s position is uncertain, because while President Vladimir Putin showed support for peace talks in a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, it also will deliver surface-to-air missles to al-Assad, according to the Syrian American Alliance, a coalition working for a democratic Syria. 

Turkey have already provided over $1.5 billion in humanitarian support, said Ergogan, and it’s important for the civil war to end soon. With Israel and Palestine peace talks breaking down some time ago, “We don’t need to have other problems in the region,” he said.

The war is extremely personal for Turkey, with relatives across the border on each side, said Erdogan. The border between Syria and Turkey is 565 miles.

The visit by Erdogan comes days after twin car bomb attacks claimed 46 lives and injured over 100 in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, near the border with Syria. The Turkish government has linked the attack to members of a Marxist, pro-al-Assad organization. 

Erdogan is also meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Kerry said Wednesday that the United States and Russia are “very hopeful” that plans to hold peace talks in June are progressing, according to Voice of America. Neither al-Assad or the opposition has committed to attending the talks.

Also on May 15 the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the Syrian government’s “escalation” of the war in the country. The resolution includes a demand that Syria let a United Nations team into the country to investigate alleged use of chemical weapons. Syria so far hasn’t allowed the team in the country. 

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