Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hands off Syria, Arabs tell Turks

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TEL AVIV -- The Arab League decision to suspend Syria's membership is one of the most important decisions since the beginning of the Arab Spring over a year ago.

On the face of it, the Arab League decision affects Syria's domestic policies only. In reality, if the suspension grows into an expulsion, it could have regional ramifications as well. Arab foreign ministers are due to meet in Rabat Wednesday to discuss whether Syria's suspension becomes permanent.

Nabil el-Arabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister and the Arab League's secretary general, made it clear that Syria's suspension will remain in force until President Bashar Assad abides by all the provisions of the Arab plan. That plan, which Assad accepted on Nov. 2, called on Syria to withdraw its army units from all the cities, to release all prisoners and to allow foreign correspondents free coverage of all Syrian events and free access to opposition groups. Assad did not honour any of these conditions.

However, beyond these inter-Arab moves, it is also time to discuss the regional ramifications of the Syrian Spring.

From the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, it was clear that Assad preferred his alliance with Iran over his new friendship with Turkey. Assad also feels that his alliance with Lebanon's Hezbollah is his security valve against Israel. Along the way, however, the Arab countries felt that they were being outmanoeuvred by the two non-Arab, Muslim countries in the region -- Turkey and Iran. From the very beginning of the Syrian unrest more than eight months ago, Turkey opened its borders to Syrian refugees, conducted military exercises along the Syrian border, hosted the Syrian opposition groups and was ready to lead a military intervention against Syria, on condition that it had an Arab cover.

Unlike in Libya, however, where the Arab cover gave NATO the legitimacy for overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi, Turkey was offered no such aid. On the contrary. In the cases of Libya and Syria, we witnessed totally different approaches on the part of the Arab League and Turkey.

In the case of Libya, the Arab League was quick to give its support to NATO, while Turkey -- because of its economic interests -- was slow to join.

In Syria, it was just the opposite. Turkey was fast to react, while the Arab League's reaction was more hesitant.

United States President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq, by the end of this year precipitated the Arab League's movement. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, led the Arab move -- Qatar up front, Saudi Arabia in the background.

Both countries feared that Turkey and Iran planned to divide the region between them: Iran in Baghdad and Turkey in Damascus.

In a move that received little public attention, Qatar's foreign minister flew two weeks ago to Ankara, to convey the Arab message.

The Arab world wants an Arab solution to the Syrian crisis. In a meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotuglu, the Qatari minister explained that, unlike Libya, Syria is at the heart of the Arab world. Syria was among the founders of the Arab League, it participated in all the wars against Israel, its actions have affected the policies of both Jordan and Lebanon and its conduct since 1973 has assured a peaceful and stable situation on the Golan Heights and along the border with Israel. Hence, it is up to the Arab world to try to solve the Syrian crisis.

According to some diplomatic sources, Davotuglu was unhappy with the Arab message. Immediately after the Qatari foreign minister's departure, Davotuglu convened the Turkey-based Syrian opposition and promised assistance for toppling Bashar Assad. When the Arab foreign ministers convene Wednesday in Morocco, Davotuglu will be also there.

Turkey is not a member of the Arab League. Hence, Davutoglu won't be able to participate in its deliberations. But Turkey is determined to try to be part of the Syrian solution. After all, Syria was the cornerstone of Turkey's new Arab policy. A failure in Syria means a collapse of the entire policy, for which Turkey was even ready to sacrifice its long and fruitful relationship with Israel. As an architect of this policy, Davotuglu is determined to try to be a part of the Arab solution of the Syrian problem.

Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 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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