Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Arabs spurn Ottoman overtures

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TEL AVIV -- With Sunday's publication of the Istanbul Declaration, the struggle between the Syrian opposition and President Bashar Assad's regime has entered a new and more determined stage.

The Istanbul gathering established the National Opposition Council and it includes the largest number of opposition groups inside and outside Syria. The key paragraph in the Istanbul Declaration reads: "The National Opposition Council is the sole address for the Syrian revolution, both at home and abroad. It's aim is to bring down the existing Syrian oppressive regime, including the presidency, and establish a civil state, without national, religious, ethnic and gender discrimination. The council is open to all Syrians who identify with the aims and principles of this peaceful revolution."

Thus, the National Opposition Council closed the door for any compromise with Assad's regime. It is determined to continue the struggle until Assad's downfall. This could prove to be a long struggle, without a clear end yet in sight. This is due mainly to the differences between the Tunisian, Egyptian and even the Libyan revolutions and the Syrian uprising.

Unlike Tahrir Square in Cairo, where thousands gathered daily and received wide media coverage, Assad never allowed such permanent, mass demonstrations. And, unlike Libya, where the revolutionaries took control of Benghazi and made it the base for expanding their uprising to Tripoli and other parts of the country, there is no such a base in Syria.

And, above all, there is the army. Despite some defections, the army is still loyal to Assad and is able, as it demonstrated during the weekend in Rastan, to quell any military revolt.

As a result, the international environment is also totally different. Russia, China, Brazil and even India are opposed to any new international sanctions against Syria. Russia, in particular, argues that it has been "tricked" by NATO in Libya and therefore it will never tolerate a repetition in Syria. Consequently, with financial support from Iran, Syria was able to negate the effects of the limited Western economic sanctions.

Feeling stronger, Syrian diplomatic language has also become more offensive. In a pro-Assad demonstration in Damascus, on Saturday, one of the signs was directed at France. It read: "Oh, Sarkozy! You tested the Syrian DNA and found cells of honour that you lack".

But the most serious crisis is now between Syria and Turkey. It will certainly have regional ramifications. Since he came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made Syria the focal point of his new Mideast policy. In his constant drive to diminish Iran's influence, Erdogan has steadily but aggressively distanced himself from Israel. He appears now to have lost both Syria and Israel.

Western intelligence sources now reveal the extent of the schism between Ankara and Damascus. On Aug. 9, Erdogan sent his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Damascus, carrying a personal letter from President Abdullah Gul to Assad. This was meant to be the "last effort" by Turkey to convince Assad to implement the reforms that he had promised.

During a six-hour, tete-a-tete discussion, Davutoglu tried -- in vain -- to convince Assad that a Turkish-Syrian alliance would be beneficial to both countries at the expense of Israel and Iran. Assad poured cold water on Davutoglu's head. He told the Turkish foreign minister: "The days of the Ottoman Sultan have gone. Syria will never accept that Ottomanism replaces Arabism. Ankara will never again become the decision-making centre of the Arab world."

Few weeks ago, the Free Press reported exclusively in this column that Erdogan heard similar comments during his trips to Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi. Egypt turned down an Erdogan request to visit the Gaza Strip, especially after last year's Turkish effort to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. That was a clear message that Egypt will not allow non-Arab Turkey to play a leadership role in the Palestinian field.

"The Turkish problem" will be at the centre of discussions today in Jerusalem between the Israeli prime minister and defence minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Ahead of his arrival Monday in Israel, Panetta told correspondents that Israel should make every effort to break its regional isolation and improve its relations with both Egypt and Turkey. Israel does not challenge this dictum. Israel hopes that because of the collapse of Erdogan's Middle East policy, Turkey will now be more amenable to find an honourable solution to its dispute with Israel. In view of the complex situation in the region, Israel also agrees that restoring its alliance with Turkey, has become now more vital.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2011 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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