Turkey in Talks with Syria

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Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Military operations against demonstrators in Syria have escalated despite international condemnation. Several Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, but President Bashar al-Assad didn't blink. Today the pressure on the Syrian regime went up a notch. The foreign minister of Turkey demanded an end to the crackdown. George Joffe is a lecturer in the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge University in England. We've reached him on vacation in Salt Lake City. George Joffe, how does this meeting with the Turkish foreign minister ramp up the pressure on Syria?

George Joffe: Well, in some ways it's the most important meeting that I think the Syrian president has had for some time because Turkey is the next door neighbor. It's really worried that the troubles inside Syria will spill over into Turkey, particularly into the Kurdish areas. And therefore, the Turkish foreign minister is anxious to demonstrate to the Syrians that they can't continue to ignore the views of their neighbors, and they're going to have to do something to bring the violence to an end. It's a message that President Assad is most unlikely to be willing to accept.

Mullins: Most unlikely to be willing to accept.

Joffe: Yes, indeed, because he seems to be convinced that the only way to deal with the current situation inside Syria is to repress it. Beyond that I think the Syrian president also has considerable pressure from inside the Ba'ath party. They're very scared and concerned about the Sunni majority, and they have to protect the interests of their own minority supporters, Christians, Alawites in particular, and therefore, they're unwilling to concede to the demonstrations or to negotiate because they believe that would be seen to be a sign of weakness.

Mullins: Well, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president did indeed say today that he will not relent in pursuing what he calls terrorist groups. Why can he afford to pursue this kind of scorched earth policy in various communities that he has been pursuing?

Joffe: Well, in a sense it is indeed a scorched earth policy. And I think he's been able to pursue it because he recognizes that Syria occupies a crucial role inside the Middle East. It's the country that in a sense confronts Israel, and that's very important because the Syrian regime has in effect been at peace with Israel for many, many years, and if it were to go the new situation might be totally unpredictable. It's the country which is linked through to Iran, and therefore, a country which is ambivalent in terms of its relationship with the west, particularly with the United States. And it's the country which has been seen by other Arab states as a guarantor of some kind of stability, and he's playing on that. Now, his weakness is not so much a question of what other states can do to him, it's a question of what the economy, the Syrian economy can stand. And there of course, not just sanctions, but the general situation inside Syria is extremely debilitating. And there will come a point when the Syrian government simply can't afford to carry on. And it's therefore a race for time between economic pressure and the crisis, the domestic crisis inside Syria itself.

Mullins: So I wonder what you're watching for then as Syria's diplomatic isolation grow. Economically you said that the country is very much hurting. What are the signs that at one point he may have to yield, if he does?

Joffe: Well outside powers such as the United States have already put sanctions on Syria. I don't think they're going to be terribly significant in the short term. The country that could put sanctions on is Turkey, and that's why the prime minister's visit is so important. But beyond that I think I'd be looking for political signs too. At the moment both Damascus and Aleppo, the two major cities inside Syria, remained relatively quiet. If they begin to see major demonstrations then the regime really has a problem.

Mullins: George, unlike in Libya, Syrians, the rebel forces in Syria have not asked for intervention from the outside, but I wonder if all this activity right now might give us a clue that the international community may be willing to act.

Joffe: I think that's extremely unlikely. Just imagine what that would mean if you began to intervene in Syria alongside Libya. Libya is relatively [inaudible 4:27]; it's important in terms oil of course, but it's not important in terms of the major political problems of the Middle East itself. If you intervene in Syria you're taking on responsibility for a whole host of problems in which Syria is the key. And it's not just a question of confronting Iran, it's also a question of dealing with the problems that might then erupt along the border with Israel. It's dealing with Turkey, it's dealing with Saudi Arabia. I don't think anybody is going to want to step into that.

Mullins: George Joffe is a lecturer in the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge University in England. He spoke to us from Salt Lake City, Utah. Thank you.

Joffe: It's been my pleasure.