As Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today both parties are under pressure. The Turks will convey to Assad that they mean business when they ask him to stop his security forces attacking civilians. As for Assad he will have to convince the Turks that he is serious about reforms and dialogue.
But that will be difficult. In the past Syria has promised much and delivered precious little and losing it’s friendship with Turkey would leave it isolated, with only Iran as a friend.
However, rather than taking a reconciliatory attitude, Syria has assumed a defiant position. On Sunday Davutoglu was warned by advisors to Assad that he “would be given short shrift”. The warning came after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said his minister would deliver a "decisive message," having seen past efforts to halt the violence, which activists say has now killed over 2,000 people, ignored.
The Turks too face a difficult situation: With US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking Turkey to pressure Syria to "return its military to the barracks and release all prisoners of concern”, Ankara is being tested over its ability to play a leading regional role and deliver a decisive change in the behavior of the Syrian regime.
If talks fail, Erdogan might have to scrap his close friendship with Assad, with whom he has holidayed and built close ties between the two countries. Not only is Turkey Syria's largest trading partner, their citizens enjoy visa-free travel and it was Turkey which tried to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel.
Those at the sharp end of the regime’s brutal crackdown are watching the Turkish mediation effort closely. “The Syrian people want a firm stand against the Syrian government and for Bashar al-Assad to step down,” said an activist from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).
He said some Syrians had felt let down by past efforts by Turkey to halt the regime’s brutal assaults against its people. Turkey, he hoped, “will not let us down this time too.”
“We hope all countries that respect human rights will withdraw their ambassadors and take stronger positions against the Syrian regime,” he said.
While Saudi Arabia withdrew its envoy to Damascus on Monday, Davutoglu has said it is too soon to talk about asking the Syrian ambassador to Ankara to leave. At the same time few hold out hopes that Turkey will impose unilateral economic sanctions arguing that they hurt the people not the regimes, but some speculate Turkey may put a halt to the building of the "Friendship Dam," a joint multi-billion-dollar dam project.
“We hope NATO will impose an air embargo on Syria in the event that heavy shelling continues on civilians,” said the LCC representative. Failing that he warned the crushing of the Syrian revolution could leave the region faced with a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Syria is three quarters Sunni, but the elite of the regime and the Assad family are drawn from the Allawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Serious destabilization in Syria could also allow Islamist extremists to gain a foothold, warned the LCC member.
Turkey will be careful not to be drawn into any military intervention in Syria, said an analyst quoted by Reuters, as they fear it could backfire on efforts to end ethnic Kurds' long-running insurgency in southeast Turkey.