Swapping Notes on the Assads
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Friday, September 14, 2012
While in Istanbul to attend a conference on the Arab Spring and Middle East peace last weekend, former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan held an hour-long tête-à-tête during which they shared their experiences with Syria's presidents. Gemayel knew former president Hafez al-Assad, and Erdogan the incumbent Bashar. Both had frustrating experiences with father and son, which had a big impact on their terms in office, prompting them to recount how their respective understandings with them broke down.
Whereas Gemayel’s presidency was overshadowed by the influence and control wielded by the older Assad in Lebanon, Erdogan oversaw an unprecedented improvement in his country’s relationship with Syria from when he assumed power in 2003 until the start of the crisis in Syria a year and a half ago. Turkish-Syrian ties were heralded as a model for relations between neighboring countries, and many historical, territorial, economic and political obstacles were overcome before the two states recently became enemies.
Erdogan never knew the older Assad. But the impression he gained of his successor was the same as that of former French President Jacques Chirac: that the young Assad would usher in a new era in Syria. Even after the outbreak of the crisis more than a year ago, Assad told Erdogan he would not repeat what his father had done in Hama in 1982 or commit another massacre, nor rule in the same way the elder had. Gemayel does not know the younger Assad, but developments in Syria have convinced him that the son is made from the father’s mold.
Gemayel told Erdogan of the many summit meetings he held with Hafez al-Assad whose outcomes were not translated into practice. He related how he would leave Damascus and return to Beirut, only for the security situation in Lebanon to deteriorate, wrecking everything that had been agreed on, or so it seemed to him. There was thus a constant Syrian threat hanging over his term in office.
In turn, Erdogan told his guest that Assad Junior promised him many things – to introduce reforms, not to use force, and not to commit a repeat of Hama – but never delivered. He said the Syrian president did not honor his word. He would not say there were pressures preventing them from doing what he had promised, or explain any reasons why he couldn’t. He was never honest. The Turkish prime minister did not hesitate to use the word “lies,” nor did he try to conceal, with undisguised anger, the personal aspect of his problem with the Syrian president. He spoke at length about the special and almost familial relationship they had previously enjoyed.
Erdogan said he lost hope of coming to any understanding with Assad. He said he noticed that, in the meetings they held, the Syrian president would talk at great length without stopping or giving others a chance to speak, seemingly impressed by himself. He not only made general promises but spoke of specific measures that would be taken, which never materialized. Erdogan stressed that Syria was important for his country’s regional strategy and internal stability, and he had made sacrifices to try to facilitate an understanding with Assad, but was left bitterly disappointed.
Gemayel and Erdogan concurred that Assad cannot remain in power after the massive destruction inflicted on his country, not to mention the general breakdown that has exhausted the regime and army, and can certainly no longer be president of a united and stable Syria. The mounting internal and foreign pressure on Assad’s regime means there can be no turning the clock back in Syria.
However, both recognized that the regime has acquired the means and resources over the decades to withstand the current crisis. It has been preparing for such an eventuality since Assad Senior’s days – as was evident in Hama – enabling it to survive despite all the help given by the West to the armed opposition in a bid to topple it by force.
Where the two men differed was over how soon the end of Assad’s regime may come. The former Lebanese president does not believe it will be overthrown tomorrow, or as quickly as its enemies seem to think, due to various factors that strengthen its capacity to survive. But the Turkish premier is already talking about the post-Assad era, anticipating, like many others, the impending demise of a regime and president who show no sign of exiting at the speed expected of them.
Both agreed, however, that with a Russian-Chinese veto at the UN Security Council blocking any resolution on military intervention in Syria, the US and its Western allies are not prepared to act without Council authorization as they did in Libya. Libya’s military capabilities were negligible, whereas Syria’s are significant, particularly its air defenses which are designed to fight a war with Israel. Any military adventure would have to take that into account, and would be costly.
Gemayel, who also met with Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu and held further discussions with some of his aides, concluded from his talks in Turkey that there would be no unilateral Turkish intervention in Syria either.
He also learned that Ankara did not view the downing by Syria of one of its warplanes in June as an innocent mistake. Neither side was innocent. Turkey sent the plane into Syria’s airspace to test its air defenses and response. Syria shot it down to demonstrate the efficacy of those defenses and its readiness to use them to confront any violation of its airspace. There was a mutual exchange of messages in Ankara’s provocation and Damascus’ decision not to ignore it.
The recent downing in Syria of a MiG jet and military helicopters was not innocent either. Turkey was not uninvolved in the incidents, which were its indirect response to the shooting down of its warplane. Previously, the opposition had lacked the anti-aircraft weaponry or expertise possessed by the Turks, who felt the need to teach a lesson in response to the one they were taught.
Ankara sees the armed conflict in Syria as having ceased to be a regional struggle and as having become part of an international game that it cannot control. Turkey certainly remains the principal gateway for the Syrian opposition, with the doors of other neighboring countries closed to various extents. Iraq is allied with Iran, which supports the Assad regime. Jordan’s behavior is confused and reluctant with regard to supporting the opposition. It is cautious, for fear that the turmoil could spill over into its own territory as in Lebanon, which is also confused. That leaves the Syrian opposition with only Turkey to provide it with material support to secure its supply lines and enable it freedom of movement.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.