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.