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Turkey, Syrian Opposition, and the United States: An Unlikely Trio?

Turkey, Syrian Opposition, and the United States: An Unlikely Trio?

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This policy brief describes efforts to force the Syrian regime from power.
This policy brief describes efforts to force the Syrian regime from power.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Nov 19, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Syrian anti-government groups reacheda U.S.-backed deal in Doha.An interesting catalyst inthe process leading to Dohaagreement was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks inlate October, where she harshlycriticized the Syrian NationalCouncil (SNC), pointed to theradical elements in its ranks, andurged a new leadership structurethat is more representative andthat commands greater supportinside and outside the country.Her remarks triggered interesting positive and negative reactions inTurkey. Those reactions may alsogive clues about the evolution of the dynamics between Turkey,the United States, and the Syrianopposition. Those clues areimportant to ponder in orderto understand the Turkish-U.S.cooperation in Syria in the newera.
 Turkey, Syrian Opposition, and the UnitedStates: An Unlikely Trio?
by Şaban Kardaş
November 19, 2012
Washington, DC
Syrian anti-government groupsreached a U.S.-backed deal in Doha,responding to the Western pressures topresent a unied ront and orm a new leadership, representative o variousgroups ghting the regime. Long asupporter o the opposition, urkey welcomed this development and urgedthe international powers to back itully. It has been no secret that urkey was ar rom satised with the U.S.position on Syria, but without clearU.S. support, it could neither achievethe diplomatic isolation o the regimenor could it channel decisive supportto the opposition on the ground.urkish government has understand-ably wanted to see a more resoluteinternational support to change thecalculations in the opposition’s avor,or the regime’s persistence has already raised questions about its regimechange policy, and it wants to see theacceleration o that process. Whetherthe Doha agreement can dramati-cally aect the situation remains to beseen. Its eectiveness will depend on ahost o actors, including the ability o the Syrian groups to uphold it or thecontours o the U.S. policy in Syria inObama’s new term. I the accord couldbe put into practice, however, it couldpresent a good opportunity to stream-line the urkey-U.S. strategic coopera-tion.An interesting catalyst in the processleading to Doha agreement was U.S.Secretary o State Hillary Clinton’sintervention. In late October, Clintonharshly criticized the Syrian NationalCouncil (SNC), pointed to the radicalelements in its ranks, and urged a new leadership structure that is more repre-sentative and that commands greatersupport inside and outside the country.Her remarks triggered interestingreactions in urkey. Tose reactionsmay also give clues about the evolu-tion o the dynamics between urkey,the United States, and the Syrianopposition. Tose clues are importantto ponder in order to understand theurkish-U.S. cooperation in Syria inthe new era. While the U.S. involve-ment in the Syrian uprising and itsrelationship to urkey’s Syria policy has been a subject o intense debatein urkey, its subtleties have not beeneasily understood in Washington.
leading player in Syria aer its success in Egypt, and they groomed other candidates or uture leadership.urkey’s support or the SNC also was a major argumentused by the domestic critics o the government’s Syriapolicy. Blinded by its sympathy or the Brotherhood, theargument goes, the government got urkey bogged downin the Syrian quagmire and increasingly isolated itsel inthe region and the international community. Not only did itinvite a conrontation with Moscow and ehran, the mainallies o Damascus, but also, and perhaps more importantly,the government was even le alone by its allies. Tis allegedalienation o urkey in the Syrian conict, where it arguably had to shoulder the responsibility o conronting the Syrianregime, was, or the critics, due to the sectarian motivationsdriving the government’s policy.Tereore, in the last couple o months, the major oreignpolicy debate within urkey concerned the revision o theMiddle East policy. Critics called or a complete revampo Syria policy, and an opening up o channels to not only the opposition groups other than the SNC but also to theregime. What the critics oen miss is that urkey’s Syriapolicy requires a longer and perhaps painul process, whilethe critics themselves are too tempted to capitalize onshort-term developments to criticize the policy, which wasreected once again in their reaction to Clintons remarks.
Reactions to Clinton’s Remarks: A Glass Half Full
Clinton remarks were like a glass hal ull, and everyoneinterpreted them as best suited their agendas. Against thebackground o the ongoing debate, the government’s criticswholeheartedly embraced Clintons remarks. For them, herwords simply put the last nail in the cofn o the govern-ment’s Middle East policy. With the U.S. determination toexclude the SNC rom the new structures representing the
In the last couple of months, themajor foreign policy debate withinTurkey concerned the revision of the Middle East policy.
Turkey and the Syrian National Council
Hosting the core elements that went on to orm the SNCsince the beginning o the uprising, urkey has done itsutmost to render it the most representative body o theopposition. Even during the early days o the protests inSyria in 2011, when it was still hoping to nd a negotiatedsettlement through its access to President Bashar al-Assad,urkey let the Syrian opposition meet on its territory. Asit abandoned Assad and called or regime change laterthat year, urkey acilitated the unication o those groupsunder the SNC and the closer ties between the civilianopposition in exile and the military resistance in Syriathrough its shelter o the Free Syrian Army. urkey alsocalled on all opposition groups to unite under the SNC,so that they could gain greater legitimacy in the eyes o the international community. As the countries supportingthe opposition gathered or the Friends o Syria meetingin unis in early 2012, the question o who will representthe ragmented opposition groups gained urgency. urkey managed to have a seat or the SNC at the next Friends o Syria meeting in Istanbul but the only accomplishment wasin having the participants describe it as a legitimate repre-sentative o the Syrian people.Despite its limited success in having the SNC sanctioned asthe sole representative, urkey kept the SNC at the centero its Syria policy. Meanwhile, acknowledging the SNC’slimitations, urkey continued its eorts to expand its base,through closer ties with Syrian Kurds and inclusion o non-Muslim groups. Te SNC’s moves in that direction, such asthe election o a Kurd as its second president, however, ellshort o allaying criticisms, and it continued to be viewed asclosely afliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while it alsosuered rom lack o strong leadership. urkey’s unwaveringsupport or it, correspondingly, was attributed to the allegedIslamism o its government, and its ties to the Brotherhood.In the regional quarters, the urkey-SNC relationship, thus,came under criticism. urkey’s close afnity with the SNCwas ound to be divisive o the opposition. Instead, somesaid urkey should have based its Syria policy on a morerepresentative platorm. Tough such criticisms might havehad some merit, they were also reective o the act thatmost Gul actors, along with the United States, were notparticularly happy with the rise o the Brotherhood as the
Though Clinton’s call for theoverhaul of the opposition had,in its essence, some merit,her remarks were factuallyproblematic.
opposition, urkey would be completely sidelined romthe Syrian crisis. Some also reerred to a rivalry betweenurkey and Qatar, as the meeting was to be held in Doha.In a manner that supported such arguments, news reportson Clinton’s remarks also presented Doha meeting as a U.S.move to nish o the SNC.What those rather simplistic accounts missed was thatthough Clinton’s call or the overhaul o the oppositionhad, in its essence, some merit, her remarks were actually problematic. Neither was the SNC was comprised solely o Islamists, nor did it lack support among the groups ghtingon the ground. Te SNC commands a certain constituency in Syria, which, as it turned out in Doha, cannot be ignored.In that regards, urkey’s backing o the SNC has been basedon some objective assesment o the Syrian situation. Tere-ore, urkey sustains its support to the SNC, through whichit hopes to maintain its leverage in the mechanisms that willshape Syria’s uture.Te analysts supportive o the government’s position had acold reaction to Clintons remarks. Tey maintained that,by painting the SNC in Islamist and extremist terms, theUnited States was seeking to delegitimize it and draw theattention away rom the gains it had scored on the groundin recent months. In this light, or instance, the wide circu-lation o video ootage showing the execution o imprisonedSyrian soldiers by the opposition ghters was part o a well-designed public relations campaign to prepare the groundor undercutting the SNC’s rising inuence. Tey main-tained that by pointing out to the opposition’s disorganizednature, the United States was drawing the attention away rom its own lack o action.Clinton’s remarks also were big news in Islamist circles. Soar, the Syrian case has led to the divisions among urkishIslamists. Te Western backing o the opposition and Iran’salliance with the regime have led some Islamists to developa skeptical attitude on the Syrian uprising, and they believethere is external manipulation behind the events. OtherIslamist groups see Syria as one o 
ıyam (uprising againstan unjust ruler) and nd it undoubtedly Islamic in char-acter, hence worthy o assistance. While their support orthe uprising stems directly rom ideological afnity, theWestern/U.S. ties with the Syrian opposition groups trou-bles them. Tey come under criticism rom the rst groupthat they are acting alongside the Western agenda againstthe “resistance ront” in the Middle East.Simply put, the Islamist groups supportive o the uprisingwere angered by Clinton’s remarks, and viewed it as an U.S.attempt to hijack the Syrian revolution. For them, alarmedby the success o the Islamists, the United States was seekingto install a new generation o leaders so that it could exertmore inuence on the course o the Syrian uprising andcontrol the opposition directly.Such reactions are important, because any new oppositionstructure that will come out o a U.S.-backed process may suer rom a legitimacy crisis among Islamist circles notonly in urkey but also in the wider region i it is seen ascompletely allied with the U.S. interests and ails to dier-entiate between homegrown conservative opposition orcesand extremist elements. o the extent that the sole U.S.interest in Syria becomes limiting the inuence o extremistgroups, it might eventually clash with the shared urkishand U.S. objective o building a unied opposition block,and undermine the support base o urkish government athome.
Turkey, Syrian Opposition, and the United Statesafter Doha
Tere was a positive side to Clinton’s remarks, which itseems urkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu preerredto see. Te gist o Clintons message, which was not ully explored in the urkish debate, was that i the oppositionpulls itsel together, it will be worthy o assistance. urkey saw the call, joined the Doha process, and acted alongsideother actors. Unlike what was suggested by its critics, the

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