Sunday, October 21, 2012

Obama makes it easy for Assad

A cartoon depicting Bashar al-Assad thumbing his nose at Turkey, while shells were fired from his fingers. (Al-Hayat)
Over the last two weeks, the Syrian regime has directed mortar and artillery fire at Turkish villages. The US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, might have stated, in response, that the United States stands behind its ally, Turkey, however it sees fit to protect itself. Instead, he confidently declared that Washington sees no possibility of war between Turkey and Syria. What the ambassador couched as a benign prediction was, in fact, an obvious instruction to Turkey.
Many have wondered whether the Assad regime’s shelling was meant to provoke Ankara. A
cartoon in the daily al-Hayat depicted the Syrian president thumbing his nose at Turkey, while shells were fired from his fingers.
Assad’s aggression is an expression of his contempt not just for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan but, in addition, the United States. He sees, on the one hand, Iran rallying all the members of its alliance network in the region (
Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militants, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) to prop him up and to isolate their common adversary, Turkey. On the other hand, Assad sees the US leaving its Turkish ally and the Syrian opposition alone in the cold.
Assad correctly interpreted the US position and concluded that he could attack Turkey with impunity. Washington not only had no interest in coming to the defense of its NATO ally, but also did not want to see any escalation from the Turkish side. 
Reading Obama’s preferences is easy for Assad. The US president has been advertising his inhibitions for many months. Last March, when the Turks came to plead with the administration to take the lead on more assertive measures in Syria, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton,
shot them down repeatedly. The Turks tried again in August and were once more rebuffed.
The more the US has signaled its intent, no matter what, to stay out of the game in Syria, the more aggressive Assad and his Iranian patrons have become.
Since as early as last summer, the Iranians have been showing the Turks that they would use the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against them. Tehran has shown its ability to reach a tactical alliance with the PKK in order to exploit one of Ankara’s principal vulnerabilities: the Kurdish issue. They first released the PKK’s commander, Murat Karayilan, in July of last year. A year later, Iran was
allowing the PKK to use its soil to launch operations against Turkey.
But the most brazen attack came in July with the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 jet over international waters off the Syrian coast. The Turks were enraged, but once again, word immediately came from Washington that left no doubt about the Obama administration’s preferences. In
comments to the Wall Street Journal, an anonymous senior US defense official not only did not endorse the Turkish account of what happened, but also seemed to lend credence to the Syrian version.The Turks, rightly, saw this leak as a calculated American effort to tarnish their credibility. The purpose of the sleight was clear: the Obama administration did not want this incident to become a slippery slope to US involvement in Syria, on the side of Turkey. The downing of the jet, therefore, had to be papered over, and Turkey had to swallow its pride. That was, in effect, the point made by US Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who admitted publicly that he impressed upon the Turks the importance of not being “provocative.”
This display was not lost on the Russians. At the time, the Obama administration was in the middle of its ill-conceived attempt to coax Moscow into supporting a “peaceful transition plan” for Syria. Seeing that the Americans had thrown the Turks under the bus, the Russians
piled it on. They upheld the Syrian account, and then rubbed Erdogan’s nose in it by offering to provide him with “objective observation data” about the incident. They then advised the Turks not to allow the incident to “ignite passions.”
Ambassador Ricciardone’s comments on Tuesday repeated Dempsey’s message: The US will not support Turkey escalating its response against Syria’s provocations.
Riacciardone’s comments are a perfect distillation of the US position on Turkey and Syria. After encouraging Turkey to take the lead on the Syria policy, the Obama administration has now
opted to leave the Turks alone in facing Assad’s Iranian and Russian allies.
The American policy is short sighted. At stake is the balance of power in the region that is favorable to US interests. Iran is marshaling all the elements of its national power to support its Syrian ally and pressure Turkey. By urging restraint on Ankara, Washington is inadvertently helping.
In Moscow, in July 2009, Obama
said that powers forging “competing blocs to balance one another” was an antiquated “19th century view.” Two months later, he again asserted at the UN General Assembly that “no balance of power among nations will hold.”
Power politics may be dead and buried in Washington, but for Assad and his allies, it is alive and well.

*Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.
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