Quo vadis? The question about what is next for Syria today is one that multiplies the concerns geometrically about Arab unrest. For 40 years, what made the hard Baathist regime survive was the defining feature of Hafez al-Assad -- pure shrewdness combined with ruthless behavior. The legacy is, as the cycle of bloody events show, still very strong.
So, in the specific case of Syria, the international community has to deal as much with fear as trust. The latter has been a key issue in the approach to Damascus, and now it has to be tested to its very limits.
An in-depth look at the WikiLeaks cables on Turkish-Syrian-American relations tells a story of caution, suspicion, tiny hopes and preparedness for a backlash: the American side did not discourage the Turks from trying to get closer to the young Assad, but it always took it with a grain of salt. Overall, there was common ground between Ankara and Washington, D.C., with regard to Syria as both countries believed it was worth a try to pull Syria out of the iron fist of the Assad clan and its corrupt backers, in addition to ending its isolation and endorsing reforms in favor of democracy and the free market. “The Turks, led by PM Erdogan [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan], FonMin Gul [Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül], and chief foreign policy advisor Davutoglu [Ahmet Davutoğlu], are selling improved relations with Syria as a major foreign policy success. GOT [government of turkey] leaders cast Turkey as a channel of communication for the US and Israel with Syria and as a friend that can support economic reform. At the same time our GOT interlocutors view Assad’s control as too fragile to sustain anything but economic reform. In this context, Erdogan has promoted his Dec. 22-23 visit to Damascus and Aleppo as a huge step forward. Erdogan reportedly raised Iraq and Middle East peace issues, but apparently received nothing new from Assad. MFA contact spun the signing of a free trade agreement as ‘the highlight’ of the visit. We pushed back that this is the wrong approach to take with Syria,” wrote Robert Deutsch, a former charge d’affaires of the US Embassy in Ankara, in a “confidential” cable on Jan. 18, 2005, weeks after Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Syria.
Deutsch wrote in another cable (April 15, 2005) that even (former) Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer “encouraged Assad to ‘continue’ with internal reforms. … With great satisfaction, (Turkish senior) diplomat Celikkol claimed that Sezer’s visit had strengthened the hand of Assad and other reformers against hard-liners who want to maintain the status quo.”
But the American skepticism persisted. The picture becomes quite clear in a cable written in July 22, 2005, by Nancy McEldowney, charge d’affaires of the embassy, when we learn that Turks also raise deep suspicions: “(Syrian Deputy FM) [Walid] al-Muallim met with FM Gul in Ankara July 22 to discuss Iraq, the Israel Palestine peace process and a possible upcoming ‘unofficial’ visit to Turkey by Bashar Assad. One MFA official told us privately that the discussions were difficult and inconclusive; another emphasized the strong message Gul and (undersecretary) Tuygan delivered on Iraq. After the meeting, Gul expressed anger at the way the Syrians are ‘using’ the Turks.”
But the absence of confidence did not halt the Turkish efforts. In the meantime, several cables emphasized that the core or “realism” in Ankara’s policies has a value, and the Turks correctly work hard to end Syria’s isolation, to stop any sectarian violence that may erupt and break the Iran-Syria axis. By October 2009, the American ambivalence seemed in line with the one in Ankara: Turkish policies on Syria encouraged Assad to hold on to his iron grip and resist change, but also seemed to be the only ray of hope to move Damascus away from its axis with Teheran.
In a “secret” cable sent by US Charge d’Affairs Charles Hunter in Damascus, Oct. 28, 2009, the conclusion reflects the persistent dilemma: “Turkey’s methodical deepening of relations with Damascus offers Syria a strategic buffer against international pressure and a ready mediator willing to help Syria mend strained relations with neighbors, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Lebanon. In the long run, Assad’s increasing trust of PM Erdogan offers the best hope of luring Syria out of Tehran’s orbit.” As of now, Assad has been losing his friends in Ankara. He abused his relations, hesitated in reform, resorted to extreme violence and may have gotten a one-way ticket out of power. Calculations have changed. It is now too late to put things on the right track. That Ankara can save him looks utterly doubtful. Every day that passes, the Assad clan moves back to isolation, and chaos.