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A Turkish View (And Some History) As Events Spiral In Syria

Veteran Turkish war correspondent Cengiz Candar, who covered the aftermath of an ill-fated uprising in Syria in 1982 which left thousands dead, tries to predict where the country's current popular rebellion will lead.

A Turkish View (And Some History) As Events Spiral In Syria
Cengiz Candar

I spent Friday night watching the TV footage from Syria. We are after all in the Twitter, Youtube, Facebook era. Everything is live. In 1991, during the Shiite and Kurdish uprising in Iraq, there was only one satellite dish, and that was in Baghdad. Nobody watched Saddam's massacres.

Now we have footage from Damascus, Deraa and across Syria. Syria is rioting. The crowds in Deraa have turned the Baath regime's slogan of ‘God, Syria and Bashar" into ‘God, Syria and Freedom". The fact that the city of Hama is rioting is a very important sign. In 1982, President Bashar Assad's father Hafiz Assad quashed an uprising there with such force that some say 10,000, others, 20,000 people were killed.

I went to Hama in 1982 via Damascus and Aleppo. The Damascus-Aleppo highway passed through Hama. I will never forget what I saw. The city center looked like Dresden or Berlin during the Second World War. Burnt out buildings, water seeping everywhere from burst pipes... As we approached the military checkpoint, the Syrians in the shared cab couldn't stop crying.

Hama has always been a pious city. It is an important Sunni center. Because it has been ‘blacklisted" by the Baath regime I anticipated that with the ‘winds of freedom" sweeping the Middle East, any uprising there would be put down with a force comparable or perhaps stronger than Gaddafi's.

The revolutionary wave reaches Syria

It is hard to tell what developments in Syria will bring; whether it will be a repeat of the situation in Libya, or Iraq in 2003. How far will it go? That is the question. A friend asked me this yesterday and I replied: ‘I don't know. What's happening in the region confounds all predictions. Analyses based on the past simply don't work."

But there are some ‘yardsticks' we can use to predict what might happen. For example, the Syrian regime will undoubtedly resort to force to stop what is happening. The political-economic leadership, which is based on the Assad-Makhluf clan and the Alawite religious minority, has no choice but to use disproportionate force to remain in power. (Makhluf is the family of the president's mother. Assad's maternal cousin Rami Makhluf is Syria's richest man. Rami's brother Mahir and sister's husband are the country's top security and intelligence chiefs.)

Will Syria do what Tayyip Erdogan suggests?

Will the Bashar Assad regime act on the recommendations of his close friend, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and start reforms? This is a serious subject of debate. Whether he has the ability to carry out reforms, most of the promises Bashar made over the past 11 years in this area have been on paper only. That's because if Syria were to seriously pursue democratization, it would be impossible for the current mainly Alawite power structure to remain. We're talking about a country that is 75 percent Sunni and whose traditional merchant class based in Damascus and Aleppo is Sunni. Syria is much more important than Libya due to its geopolitical position, its population and the possible consequences of what happens there -- that would directly affect Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

For the past two years Turkey has emerged as an active regional player and power on the international stage, and Syria is a cornerstone in its new Middle East policy. For this reason, what happens in Syria, how it happens and what path is chosen – or not - will have a far greater impact on Turkey's near and medium-term foreign policy than anyone else's. The events in Tunisia, and in particular Egypt, further polished Turkey's international profile. Libya tarnished that somewhat. Just when the government's Libyan policy was coming together, Syria could really give Turkey a headache. My friends no doubt will have more questions for me in the coming days.

Photo - Michael Thompson

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