Turkey has escalated its heretofore passive campaign against the Syrian regime by harboring and guarding members of the nascent Syrian insurrection. The New York Times reports:
The support for the insurgents comes amid a broader Turkish campaign to undermine Mr. Assad’s government. Turkey is expected to impose sanctions soon on Syria, and it has deepened its support for an umbrella political opposition group known as the Syrian National Council, which announced its formation in Istanbul. But its harboring of leaders in the Free Syrian Army, a militia composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces, may be its most striking challenge so far to Damascus.
On Wednesday, the group, living in a heavily guarded refugee camp in Turkey, claimed responsibility for killing nine Syrian soldiers, including one uniformed officer, in an attack in restive central Syria.
Turkish officials describe their relationship with the group’s commander, Col. Riad al-As’aad, and the 60 to 70 members living in the ‘officers’ camp’ as purely humanitarian. Turkey’s primary concern, the officials said, is for the physical safety of defectors. When asked specifically about allowing the group to organize military operations while under the protection of Turkey, a Foreign Ministry official said that their only concern was humanitarian protection and that they could not stop them from expressing their views.
In the annals of interventionist spin, claiming the shelter and defense of armed rebels is a “purely humanitarian” exercise is really quite impressive. But this spin is certainly going the United States’ way — we would like to see the Assad regime fall at least as much as Turkey does, but, post-Libya, can hardly commit to a similar operation again.
Turkey and the U.S. embraced the younger Assad as a political and economic reformer when he succeeded his father in 2000, and continued to do so for years. The West’s disappointment with the pace of reform has been confirmed by Assad’s response to the Arab spring — no more doubts remain that he is the worst kind of bloody Arab kleptocrat.
But the U.S. has an interest in Assad’s ouster beyond his record of oppression — Assadite Syria is also Iran’s most significant ally in the Middle East, which is of concern to the United States and Israel. Removing him from power would most likely be a clear benefit to American national security, in a way that Qaddafi’s downfall was not (as Andy McCarthy has explained). A mildly Islamist state like we are beginning to see emerge in post–Arab spring nations (as Tunisia’s elections have confirmed) would be vastly preferable to the Hezbollah haven and Iranian vassal Syria is now.
Much has been made of Turkey’s turn away from NATO and the West toward greater regional autonomy (see Michael Rubin in NR’s October 17 issue), but this is not an entirely negative development, as their new support for Assad demonstrates. If Turkey wants to be a regional power, it has every reason to try to keep its own backyard free of Iranian influence, which means getting rid of Assad. And if Turkey is trying to push Iran out of the Levant, then Israel’s backyard will become a bit less dangerous too. Turkey may no longer be a great ally, but from a realpolitik perspective, if we want to get rid of Assad, Turkey may be instrumental in doing so.