The Syrian Supply Chain

Can Turkey arm Syria’s rebels without reaping Assad's blowback?

ANKARA, Turkey — After months of excruciating indecision in Washington and a rapid reversal of events in Syria -- where only six months ago it seemed like time was running out for President Bashar al-Assad -- the White House has finally indicated that it will send light arms to the Syrian rebels. The decision, as spokesmen for the Syrian opposition were quick to point out, is unlikely to shift the balance of power in Syria, but it will almost certainly leave its mark on Turkey, which has become increasingly enmeshed in the conflict in recent months.

Much remains muddled about the shift in U.S. policy. According to a statement by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, the United States has "augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council," which at least nominally commands the rebel Free Syrian Army. What exactly that assistance will consist of beyond the provision of light weapons and ammunition -- details attributed only to anonymous sources in various newspaper accounts -- is an open question. One Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, even tried to walk back reports that the United States plans to send weapons. "I can't comment on things that have not been decided," he told Foreign Policy. "In time let's see what the U.S. statement actually means in practice."

Even if the augmented U.S. assistance does indeed include weapons, it's not clear whether this would impact the situation on the ground. It is no secret that the rebels do not lack light arms, which are already flooding in from Gulf states and Iraq -- and can be captured or bought in Syria. What they often lack is ammunition and heavier weapons -- particularly anti-aircraft weapons -- that will allow them to challenge the regime's superior airpower and ability to attack from afar. Yet the U.S. plan lacks provisions for the supply of anti-aircraft weapons and clearly makes no provisions for a no-fly zone. Nor will troops from the West or the Gulf be joining the rebels -- as Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have done for the regime.   

Nonetheless, the U.S. announcement highlights Turkey's role, along with Jordan, as one of the main conduits of rebel weaponry into Syria -- a role that could destabilize Turkey as Syria's two-year-old conflict intensifies. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a vocal supporter of the Syrian rebels, repeatedly calling for Assad to step down and lobbying the White House to take "further steps" to accelerate his departure. His "open-door" policy towards Syria has also allowed rebels to cross easily in and out of the country, creating a vital safe haven for the opposition in southern Turkey.

Since the conflict began in 2011, some 400,000 refugees have flooded across the border. At the same time, rebels and the Syrian political opposition have sought medical treatment, fund-raised, and planned operations on Turkish soil, where both France and the United States are reportedly providing training. In effect, southern Turkey has become the buffer zone the Syrian opposition consistently demanded from the international community.

By mid-2012, Turkey had evolved into a critical arms-conduit, funneling weapons into the Syrian theater. Turkish intelligence agents transported light arms and ammunition from Qatar and Saudi Arabia into Syria, an operation implicitly agreed to by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. In a nod to Washington and Ankara's concerns about more radical rebel elements, no anti-aircraft weapons -- of the type necessary to protect rebel-held areas from indiscriminate air attacks -- were provided, only light weapons.

It is these channels that will most likely form the foundation of any U.S. efforts to arm the rebels, though as of yet, there is no evidence that the guns have started moving.  According to a source privy to the talks between the Obama administration and the rebel Supreme Military Council, a decision on how to transfer the arms could be made within one week. "The question is not who they provide the weapons, but what [is] the mechanism?" said the source. One of the key hurdles slowing down the process is the question of how to ensure the weapons are used against the regime and not stockpiled for after Assad falls.

Both air and land transfers through Turkey and Jordan are being discussed as options, but a definite decision on how to provide the arms has not yet been reached. "The U.S. might help get the weapons to the final destination, to the end user," said the source, who felt strongly that the United States should make use of both the Turkish channel, where Qatar has been the most active in supplying weapons, and the Jordanian channel, where Saudi Arabia is the most active.

"If the U.S. wants to fix the issue [it] needs to take the lead in both north and south. There shouldn't be any relationship between local commander and foreign government," the source said, hinting at the potential for competing patrons to cause the opposition to fracture. "This is like warlordism creation."

But exporting violence is a two-way street. Already, Turkey has experienced blowback from its meddling in the war in Syria. On Feb. 1, the U.S. embassy in Ankara was attacked by a suicide bomber from a far-left group opposed to the current Western intervention in Syria. Then on May 11, a double car bombing  killed more than 50 people in the border town of Reyhanli, which serves as a logistics hub for the Syrian opposition. The majority of those killed were said to be Turkish citizens.

Many blamed the Turkish government for the attacks. Indeed, the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) Syria policy has been one of the driving forces behind the nationwide anti-government protests that rocked the country over the past three weeks. Heavy-handed police tactics seem to have dispersed the protests for the moment, but the underlying resentment remains. While most Turkish protesters stopped short of praising Assad, few agreed with their government's attempts to oust him. By and large, they don't believe Turkey stands to gain from entering the conflict. Few perceive Assad as a threat and many remain fearful of the religious fanaticism of some rebel contingents.

As Issa, a Syrian man who joined the Turkish protesters in Istanbul, explained: "Assad is secular, it does not matter [to the protesters] if he kills people if he is secular. And [they] are leftist, also Assad is leftist, and they are left like him."

If the United States does begin providing substantial arms to the Syrian rebels -- and perhaps allows Gulf countries to provide heavier weaponry -- the war could spread into Turkey, both as the regime retaliates and as al Qaeda-linked forces establish a greater foothold on the country. The flow of arms is also likely to anger segments of the Turkish public that perceive Ankara's Syria policy as one of aggression, rather than self-defense.

Already, extremist elements have established a presence inside Turkey, as evidenced by the May 29 arrest of 12 alleged members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliated brigade, across Turkey. "Once these people come in it's very difficult for you to get rid of them," said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based researcher with the Silk Road Studies Program at John Hopkins University.  

Fearing additional attacks, Turkey has transferred control of the border from the gendarmerie to the military over the last year, and sought to clamp down on rebel groups going back and forth. Since then, Turkish troops have reportedly come under fire from groups on the other side of the border. 

"There's a sense that Turkey was initially supportive, but under pressure from the U.S., which is very alarmed about al-Nusra, [it] is beginning to clamp down on them," Jenkins said. Among jihadists, "there's been a shift in perceptions about Turkey." 

In theory, any U.S. arms that flow into Syria would go to fighters that oppose al-Qaeda linked groups. But given the chaos of war it is virtually impossible to be certain where the arms will end up. With extremists playing such a large role in Syria, more blowback can only be expected for Turkey -- and from multiple directions.



The Strong Man at His Weakest

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has never had more support -- or a bigger challenge to his rule.

ISTANBUL - "Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan! Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan!" chanted supporters of the Turkish prime minister, as a friend and I made our way through the absolutely mammoth crowd that descended on the Kazlicesme area of Istanbul last Sunday to hear their leader speak. As with Erdogan's rally in the capital, Ankara, the day before, the people who turned out here, many of whom were decked out in scarves, T-shirts, and masks supporting the prime minister, vastly outnumbered the Gezi Park protesters who have captured global headlines. Young, old, well-to-do, decidedly modest, religious, and secular all declared their devotion to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan. When the prime minister surveyed the 295,000 souls who had come to express their devotion and thundered, "Taksim Square is not Turkey!" it was a vindication of his vision, his economic policies, and the strength of his leadership. Yet the irony was that at Kazlicesme, Erdogan's demonstration of strength revealed his profound weakness and political vulnerability.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Turkey knows something about the Erdogan mystique. He's the tough guy from the Kasimpasa neighborhood -- literally and figuratively down a steep slope from Taksim Square -- who has remade Turkey over the last decade. For the media personalities parachuted into a maelstrom of tear gas, water cannons, and pepper spray, Turkey under Erdogan is best described as an economic and political success story, a "model" of a "Muslim democracy and prosperity" for the Arab world. But Erdogan's reservoir of support is based on a much more tangible set of factors. The fact that he presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world -- it was the 16th in the 1990s -- is less important than the fact that more people are participating in it than ever before. There are still fabulously wealthy and terribly poor people in Turkey, but the overall gap between the two has narrowed. That is no small accomplishment. In other high-growth countries like Brazil, China, and Russia, for example, that gap has grown. 

Consistent with the kind of grassroots work that the AKP's precursor, the Welfare Party, perfected in the 1980s and 1990s, Erdogan -- the guy who used to sell the Turkish version of the bagel, called simit, from a cart on the street -- has focused much of his time in office on improving the lives of ordinary Turks. In places where transportation was thin, health care was basic, and government services were non-existent, the prime minister has paved roads, built airports, established "Erdogan-care," and forced local governments to be responsive to their constituents. As a result, Kasimpasa is not so rough-and-tumble anymore and the people there love him for it.

Economics does not explain everything, however. Erdogan, whose political skills are unrivaled in Turkey, has an innate ability to appeal to his core constituents and, until not too long ago, beyond. His fiery and emotional rhetoric gets most of the attention, but it is framed around a folksy common sense that resonates across the country. When a law restricting the sale of alcohol to certain times and places came under fire from secular elites, many average Turks may have winced at Erdogan's oblique reference to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his deputy Ismet Inonu were alcoholics, but they also could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For them, the fact that liquor can be sold around schools and mosques at any time of day to anyone of any age offends a basic sense of right and wrong -- to say nothing of piety. 

Nothing reinforced the wholesome values of Erdogan and his constituency more than the pedestal upon which the policemen were placed at the Kazlicesme rally. At the center of the city, where the black-clad and helmeted riot police were busy expending copious amounts of tear gas against their fellow Turks, the AKP rally was a law-and-order love fest. When police moved about on the streets adjacent to the site, the throngs parted ways and cheered for them. Young officers who had been brought into Istanbul for the event could not help but blush. The cops were relaxed, even chit-chatty. Unlike their colleagues who were engaged in a pitched battle in and around Istiklal Street at about the same time, the biggest problem for the police at the AKP rally was helping two foreigners find an outlet to recharge dying or dead iPhones.

Of course, Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves in part because his formal, parliamentary opposition has nothing to offer Turks. One of the many ironies of the last three weeks has been the indignation of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) over the prime minister's authoritarian drift. Hardly a paragon of democratic governance itself, the CHP can count on the support of a hard-core base that represents the Kemalist elite. Their commitment to a diverse and democratic Turkey is suspect, at best. The party of Ataturk is a relic of the past and, like the variety of lesser parties who have shown up in Taksim Square to show their colors, they appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate.  

For Erdogan and his supporters, the rallies in Ankara and Istanbul only reinforced the AKP's mastery of the political arena. It was hard not to feel this energy and vibe in the carnival-like atmosphere of Kazlicesme. As one homemade placard declared: "Today is Turkey's Day!" Yet there was a dark underside to Erdogan's demonstration of power. The man holding the sign could have been appealing for Turkish unity, but in the context of the last three weeks, he was advancing the idea that Erdogan has consistently perpetuated -- the notion that the Gezi Park protesters were somehow not good Turks. 

One of the prime minister's great accomplishments -- and a source of his mystique in Europe and the United States during his early years in power -- was his efforts to forge a Turkey that was (all at the same time) more Muslim, more European, and more democratic without losing that fiercely held sense of "Turkishness." For other politicians, the contradictions in this would be too difficult to manage politically, but not for Erdogan. What better agent of change than the physically imposing, wear-his-emotions-on-his-sleeve, confident embodiment of the new Turkish man to bring the country out of its self-imposed insularity. Erdogan held out hope that the debilitating war over Turkish identity that had been at the heart of the country's political drama since the republic's founding might come to an end, and he rode a broad coalition of Turks back to power in 2007, and again in 2011.

The first (and until Gezi Park, the only) political crisis of Erdogan's tenure came in the late spring of 2007, when the prime minister appealed to democracy, a sense of fairness, and widely shared sentiments about a new Turkey -- giving him a victory over the military, which had sought to block Abdullah Gul from becoming president. There were many Turks who were deeply worried that having a president from Turkey's Islamist party would alter the country irrevocably, but Erdogan appealed to the Turks' collective better angels. This was the Turkish leader at his zenith.

Almost exactly six years later, Erdogan has done the exact opposite, summoning the worst instincts of Turkish political culture and sharpening its divide. This strategy -- identifying your opponents as extremists, "marginals," and/or foreign agents -- is the hallmark of leaders who have lost the ability to reach the kind of broad constituencies that assure political success. Slashing and burning as Erdogan has been doing shores up the base and suggests that he is still very much in command, but at a significant price. The destruction of the squatter camp in Gezi Park last Saturday night was an awesome show of force, but not of political power. A secure leader would have let the park become a smelly mess until the hippie-dippies who took it over drifted away. Yet for Erdogan, every day that the protesters were out in the streets was a festering reminder that not all Turks were buying what he and his party were selling, which held out the prospect that more and more people might join the demonstrators. Not necessarily in Gezi Park, but nevertheless join them politically.

Erdogan may not be in danger of losing an election, but he has sharpened the divides to such an extent that there are now two Turkeys -- one that thinks he is evil and another that thinks he is benevolent. And in order to keep the large numbers in the former camp in line, he will have to resort to authoritarian measures. Erdogan has already done an effective job intimidating the traditional Turkish media, but at great cost to journalists who have been openly mocked throughout the Gezi crisis. Now he has set his sights on social media. Early on, Erdogan referred to Twitter as a "menace" or a "curse." Now his justice and interior ministers are teaming up to write regulations that would outlaw what the government considers provocative tweets. If there was ever an indication of a leader's weakness, it is to try and roll back the freedom of expression that people have found online. Comparisons to Tahrir Square are met with visceral denunciations among AKP supporters and Egyptians who jealously guard their uprising, but Erdogan's effort to control Twitter is reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak's own failed campaign against bloggers, Facebook, and SMS text messaging.

Erdogan has also engaged in the crude and absurd in an increasingly panicked effort to roll back open dissent. Turkish police rounded up about 100 activists in Istanbul, Ankara, and Eskisehir for instigating protests. The public prosecutor declared the possession of swim goggles -- an innocent tool for protecting eyes from tear gas canisters and the toxic brew that comes out of police water cannons -- to be an offense tantamount to terrorism. On Tuesday evening, the Interior Ministry announced that the original "Standing Man," the performance artist Erdem Gunduz, might be charged with "resisting police without resistance." When one adds to all this the increasingly unhinged pronouncements of government ministers about foreign plots, the American Enterprise Institute, "interest rate lobbies," Jews, and the foreign media, a more complex picture of Turkish politics emerges in which leaders are in fear of losing command.

The fact that Erdogan is actually weak may come as a surprise to those who have felt his wrath, or be dismissed as wishful thinking among those who revere him. In the intensity of the past three weeks, it has not dawned on Turks why a leader who is allegedly so strong needs to call rallies of the party faithful -- more are planned for the coming week in Kayseri, Erzurum, and Samsun -- to prove that he is strong.

Turkey is at an interesting and high-stakes moment, but political activists seem to be waiting on the sideline for something to happen. Erdogan has, in an unintended way, given them a narrative with which to challenge him politically -- something along the lines of "no to authoritarianism, yes to democracy." But if they want to change the trajectory of Turkish politics, they should make haste, because the strong man is at his weakest now.

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