Despite protests, Turkey remains ‘indispensable’ to West

(By Deutsche Welle) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on protests in Turkey has sparked condemnation in the EU and US. But as the West moves to up its involvement in Syria, it’s unlikely to risk a break with Ankara.

Long heralded in the West as a democratic example to the broader Muslim world, Turkey has elicited harsh condemnations from its allies in the European Union and the United States in recent weeks. Reacting to Erdogan’s crackdown on protests, both powers have called on Ankara to respect the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

In Washington, the Obama administration has – at least rhetorically – positioned itself on the side of the protesters. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney has said that the White House believes most of the demonstrators are law-abiding citizens. Prime Minister Erdogan had labeled the protesters as “looters” and “extremists.”

“We believe that Turkey’s long-term stability, security and prosperity is best guaranteed by upholding the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and a free and independent media,” Carney told reporters over the weekend.

But the protests in Turkey come during a critical juncture in Middle East, with the Western powers moving to become more deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would begin supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons, saying that the Assad government had crossed a “red line” by allegedly deploying sarin gas.

Turkey – which shares a 822-kilometer border with Syria – has played a critical role in the conflict in Syria, hosting more than 380,000 Syrian refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on its territory. Western arms shipments are likely to be delivered to the FSA, which is considered to be more liberal and secular than Islamist rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

“For the US to be able to implement that policy, it needs to work closely with the Turkish government as a conduit for those weapons,” Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkish foreign policy and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Brussels, told DW.

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Risky military options for US in Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) US senators continue to pressure the Obama administration to intervene directly in Syria’s increasingly Balkanized civil war. But all the military options at Washington’s disposal carry major risks.

For more than a year now, the United States has been walking a fine line in Syria’s civil war, offering rhetorical support and non-lethal aid to the anti-Assad rebels, while publicly distancing itself from any notion of deploying American military power to topple the regime in Damascus.

In the latest push to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict, the US and Russia have agreed to sponsor talks between the fragmented rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Geneva, possibly as early as June.

But the key differences between the two Security Council members remain. The US continues to push for Assad to step down, while Russia considers his fate an internal Syrian issue. Peace talks have also been complicated by Moscow’s call for Iran, Washington’s main rival in the region, to participate in the negotiations.

In the US Congress, key senators are putting little stock in the push for peace and are calling for direct US intervention on the ground. The scenarios range from arming the rebels, to establishing no-fly and safe zones, to intervening with ground troops to secure the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

“We have an obligation and responsibility to think through the consequences of direct US military action in Syria,” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

“Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” Hagel said.

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US, Russia seek to bridge divide over Syria

(By Deutsche Welle) For more than two years, Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Syria, as the civil war there continued to escalate. But now, the former Cold War foes are promising to bridge the diplomatic divide.

If one were to take US Secretary of State John Kerry at his word, then the diplomatic stalemate between America and Russia over the Syrian civil war seems to have been a miscommunication. During talks in Moscow, Kerry told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and Russia have “very significant common interests” in pushing for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria.

“The alternative is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos,” Kerry told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday.

“The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow,” Kerry said. “The alternative is that there may be even a break up of Syria.”

The secretary of state’s push for Russian cooperation comes as the civil war in Syria has taken on troubling new regional and international dimensions in recent days.

Israel twice bombed targets outside of Damascus last weekend, reportedly in an attempt to prevent Iranian guided missiles from falling into the hands of the Shiite Islamist militant group, Hezbollah.

The Israeli airstrikes came after the United States and its British and French allies claimed to have mounting evidence that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. The three Western powers have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of deploying the chemical agent sarin against rebel forces and civilians. Damascus, on the other hand, has accused the rebels of using deadly chemical agents.

“Kerry is following up the US administration’s stated goal of leading a diplomatic effort that was to include unifying the opposition and coordinating an international response,” Waleed Hazbun, director of the Center for Arab and Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut, told DW via email.

“But even on the humanitarian level, the US effort is viewed regionally as lacking,” Hazbun said.

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Bleak prospects for no-fly zone over Syria

(Deutsche Welle) With the UN peace plan in tatters, regional battle lines are being drawn in Syria. Calls for a no-fly zone have grown, but the West remains reluctant to intervene during an election year and an economic crisis.

As Syria enters its 18th month of bloodshed, the conflict there has increasingly become a regional proxy war, with the United States and its allies – particularly Turkey – facing the difficult question of how to proceed in the wake of the failure of diplomacy to end the violence.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Istanbul over the weekend, where she met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss what she called ways to “hasten the end of the bloodshed and [President Bashar] Assad’s regime.”

When asked by a reporter whether establishing safety or no-fly zones was under consideration,she indicated that both Washington and Istanbul were actively weighing the pros and cons of a military intervention.

“It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions,” Clinton told a press conference after her meeting with the Turkish foreign minister on Saturday. “But you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning. And we share not only the frustration, but the anger and outrage of the Syrian people at what this regime continues to do.”

As the civil war in Syria has escalated, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated and increasingly strained the resources of neighboring countries, particularly Turkey. The UN refugee agency reports that almost 150,000 Syrians have fled their homeland since the uprising began, with at least 50,000 taking refuge in Turkey alone.

According to the UN, the widespread and indiscriminate use of warplanes and helicopter gunships by the government against rebel forces in the city of Aleppo has led to a spike in the stream of refugees. Meanwhile, Western nations have expressed concern that the Assad regime could use its alleged chemical weapons in an act of desperation, or simply lose control of them as Syria slides toward collapse.

“The range of contingencies people are discussing is very much larger and there’s going to be a broader debate about responses, including a no-fly zone,” Ian Lesser, director of the Transatlantic Center with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told DW.

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Syrian uprising challenges Assad regime’s regional ties

(By Deutsche Welle) Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters has placed Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran in a tough spot as they try to reconcile their political ties to the Assad regime with their professed support for the Arab uprisings.

As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime faces growing isolation both domestically and on the world stage due to its six-month-long violent crackdown on opposition protesters, the increasingly real prospect of regime change in Syria has sent political tremors throughout the region.

The Assad regime claims the leadership mantle of the so-called resistance bloc in the Middle East (informal group including Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – the ed.), a movement that opposes Israel and American influence in the region.

But the Syrian government’s violent crackdown, which has taken the lives of an estimated 2,700 people according to the UN, has begun to undermine the regime’s resistance credentials and could tarnish the reputation of its Islamist allies, threatening to permanently de-legitimize and weaken the current key players within the resistance camp.

“The whole raison d’être of the state is based on the whole slogan of resistance and we are facing Israel,” Khaled Hroub, an expert on Arab politics at the University of Cambridge, told Deutsche Welle.

“The rhetoric, the discourse is the backbone of the whole regime in the country, if you take this out nothing is left for the regime to promote itself, to justify its existence.”

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