The Arab Spring has Given Turkey a Voice. Don't mess with it
The French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé was here "to talk about Syria". Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pontificated that "perhaps because Syria has not enough petroleum, there has been less interest in the West in the killing of Syrian civilians" – probably true – while every Turkish newspaper has been speculating about the Turks' future plans for action in Syria. A Turkish military cordon sanitaire inside the border with Syria seems to be the favourite.
Listening in the old capital of the Ottoman Empire to the mice-turned-to-lions of the Gulf, you could almost believe these were the Last Days of Assad. Personally, I doubt it. When The Wall Street Journal announces his forthcoming demise I reckon he's safe for a good while yet. The Syrian National Council in Istanbul is itself a pretty argumentative mouse, recognised only by the pipsqueak power of the new Libya.
Yet the very final ultimatum from the Arab League – it expires tomorrow – is an extremely serious matter for the Baathist powers in Damascus. Does Syria allow a 500-strong team of observers from the League to go prowling around Homs and Hama and Deraa? Isn't that in itself a real boxer's punch to Syria's sovereignty? The Moroccan ambassador has left Damascus after the attack on his embassy. The Qataris and Saudis left a long time ago. The German ambassador is flaunting what is supposed to be a new draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria. Presumably he has discovered some crumbs to throw to the Russians and Chinese to bring them on board.
In Turkey, however, there is real anger at Syria's response to Turkish initiatives. And when President Abdullah Gul says that Turkey's reaction to another attack on its embassy in Damascus will be "entirely different" if it happens again, he probably means what he says. As the Israelis found out after their killing of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara last year, you don't mess with Turkey, certainly not the newly self-confident Turkey which is championing the Arab awakening and whose flag flies once more in honour across the Arab world.
Mr Erdogan was almost cruelly to the point when he addressed Syria and its President, saying: "You, Assad, have been holding thousands of political prisoners in jails; you have to find those who attacked the Turkish flag and hold them accountable." The Turks want far more than the personal apology they received from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem at the weekend. They want a full and official apology from Syria – just as they are still waiting for a full and official Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara killings.
There is much talk in Istanbul of cutting all oil links with Syria, of cutting back on electricity supplies to Syria – much good will that do, of course, because it is Syria's poor who will suffer. The Syrian government has generators, does it not? Interestingly, the Turks evacuated 60 of their diplomats and families from Syria at the weekend – but all their embassies and consulates remain fully operational.
Opposition parties in Turkey have been claiming that Erdogan and his chums in Ankara have taken a sectarian dislike to the Assad family because they are Alawites, a branch of Shiism. And the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu felt he had to respond. "Assad has been a Nusayri [Alawite] all along," he said. "Wasn't he one when we were friends? We do not view Syria through a sectarian lens." Well maybe, but this explanation probably belongs to the ho-hum department. Turkey, of course, is largely Sunni Muslim.
What Mr Juppé and his Turkish opposite number have to chat about is perfectly clear: they want to unite the Syrian opposition and thus prevent any of the catastrophic divisions – like, for example, the burning alive of the Libyan rebel army commander before Gaddafi had fallen – which befell the opposition in Libya. Wisely, the Turks are taking claims by Syrian insurgents that they have attacked an intelligence headquarters outside Damascus with a very large pinch of salt. As for the gunfire reportedly heard around the city, no doubt the French ambassador in Damascus will enlighten the world about this when he makes his own exit in the near future.
Since the official Syrian news agency Sana itself announced that the Arab League wanted to send observers to Syria, one can assume that Mr Moallem – which in this case means President Assad – has approved their arrival. But 500 of them? And how much freedom will they be given? And will they try to visit opposition figures inside Syria and – more to the point – find out exactly who these mysterious but real and armed insurgents are?