22 November 2011

Syria The Denouement Rapidly Approaching

My tiny readership will remember that I predicted many months ago that Turkey will play a pivotal role in removing Bashar al Assad and his government from power.

That prediction made sense in light of my hypothesis that the US was in the process of undertaking a large scale transformation of the Middle East to control the distribution of oil and gas and entrusting Turkey with the regional super power role.

It looks like things are evolving in that direction.

When the Arab League suspended Syria on 12 November, King Abdullah of Jordan went on BBC World News Television and said:
"If Bashar has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life," 

When you see the map of the region you see the significance of this declaration from Jordan:

Syria's two most important neighbors are Turkey to the north and Jordan to the south. As you can see, the bogeyman everyone is talking about (Iran) is very far away.

When both Turkey and Jordan call for a regime change it will get difficult to dismiss that as idle talk.

Turkish Prime Minister has been calling for the end of the Ba'ath rule in Syria almost daily using an increasingly colorful, if not belligerent, language.

He first declared that "the future could not be built on the blood of the oppressed" before warning "the Syrian president Bashar al Assad that repressive leaders often come to tragic ends." 

He then asked the world to "hear the screams from Syria."

And just today he urged al Assad to step down, using, tellingly, the example of: Qaddafi and his inglorious demise outside a sewer pipe
 “Assad is showing up and saying he would fight to the death. For God's Sake, against whom will you fight? Fighting against your own people is not heroism, but cowardice. If you want to see someone who has fought until death against his own people, just look at Nazi Germany, just look at Hitler, at [Benito] Mussolini, at Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania,” he said. “If you cannot draw any lessons from them, then look at the Libyan leader who was killed just 32 days ago in a manner none of us would wish for and who used the same expression you used.”
President Gul, who is generally considered the affable and moderate face of the ruling AKP party, said in London that "Syria reached a dead end and change is inevitable."

This is all nice and dandy, you might say, but how will they force Bashar and his merry band of thugs to step down. Qaddafi's miserable end might actually dissuade them from contemplating a peaceful exit.

That is true and more importantly, a point of no return seems to have been reached. That is to say, neither side can back down now, because the consequences of doing so would be very painful. One side lost several thousand people but if they stop now, they will certainly lose many tens of thousands more. The other side knows that they will not be given amnesty, immunity or any role in the next regime. If they give up power, one way or another they will end up paying for this bloodshed.

Both sides have no choice but march ahead.

Most commentators assume that this means a civil war is inevitable.

I am not as convinced. A confrontation between a poorly armed, rag tag formation of civilians and a well equipped regular army is not a civil war, it is a massacre. Even in Libya, Qaddafi's poorly trained army would have eventually been victorious had it not been for massive NATO air attacks

Consequently, if a regime change is necessary then an outside intervention will be required.

The menacing response to the attack on Turkish diplomatic buildings and the flag burning and the equally sharp reaction to an attack on a Turkish bus led some people to believe that the denouement might come in the form of an invasion.

The idea of triggering a casus belli is endlessly attractive but it is not always feasible in the real world. My guess is that much less violent means might be employed in this case.

And there is precedent.

Turkey made Syria an offer it could not refuse at least twice in the past and got the Ba'athist regime to radically change its policy towards its northern neighbor. In the 1980s, Syria was known to provide logistic and material support to a number of high profile terrorist organizations. Turkey convinced Hafez al Assad, the father of the current Syrian President, that he should no longer protect ASALA, the infamous Armenian terrorist group that killed several Turkish diplomats in the 1980s. Hafez promptly complied and ASALA soon had a number of misfortunes and was forced to disband.

The method used? A series of dams on the Euphrates.

You see, the two biblical rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris originate from Turkey and the first one goes through Syria and then enters Iraq, the second traverses a tiny section of Syria before going into Iraq. They join towards the end before they reach the Persian Gulf and become the Shatt al Arab.

Turkey currently has (this is from memory) 19 dams on Euphrates and by 2015  that number will reach 22. Arrangements between upstream and downstream countries is regulated on a bilateral basis and apart from one early protocol on water sharing most of it has been done on an ad hoc basis. In the last five years a lot of goodwill helped those negotiations but the point remains that there is no binding agreement that will prevent Turkey to stop water to Syria.

And with 20 or so dams it can certainly do so. More importantly, Syria knows it.

After ASALA, Turkey approached Syria about Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, who was based in Damascus, enjoying full protection and support of Syria. Turkey once again convinced the Syrian regime that Ocalan needed to go by simply pointing to the dams. Ocalan was caught shortly thereafter and is now in prison.

Right now, no one is talking about using this weapon. Instead they are mentioning electricity, a mostly symbolic weapon but a highly evocative one.

In mid-November, Energy Minister Yildiz (the same guy who has rebuffed Iranian nuclear technology offer) said
"We are supplying them (Syria) with electricity at the moment. If they stay on this course, we may be forced to re-examine all of these decisions" 
Syria produces more electricity than it consumes, therefore pulling the plug is not a serious threat. Besides, Turkish President has just said that for humanitarian reasons they do not intend to go through with that threat, for the time being. But everyone knows that the real threat is water.

The other relevant pressure point is the economy:
In a possible signal Turkey was readying economic sanctions against Damascus, the country's Economy Ministry also said it had established a Syria desk to monitor developments and to assist Turkish businesses doing trade in Syria.
Why is that important? Turkey is Syria's largest trading partner with bilateral trade being worth $2.5 billion. This may sound like chump change to your Western ears but for a $59 billion GDP economy with a total foreign trade of $4.8 billion that is a huge number.

Which also makes it a huge pressure point. I am guessing that one reason the Turkish side has delayed announcing the sanctions is to make sure they get the right package that will hurt the most.

One last point: Qatar is the current chair of the Arab League and it has been extremely vocal in pressuring Syria. Even Robert Fisk is impressed.

Keep an eye on that tiny kingdom. They finance Al-Jazeera, they send fighter planes to take out Qaddafi and they breath new life in somnolent organizations, like the quaintly named Arab League.

And they might be in on this whole transformation.

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