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Syrian Opposition Eyes Turkey for Arms Support

Syrian refugees gather up before a walk outside their camp in Reyhanli, Turkey, Sunday, March 4, 2012.
Syrian refugees gather up before a walk outside their camp in Reyhanli, Turkey, Sunday, March 4, 2012.
Dorian Jones

The Syrian National Council has called for a bureau to be created for facilitating arms to the opposition in Syria. This is posing a dilemma for Ankara, which has been strongly supporting the opposition but has refrained, at least publicly, from backing the arming of the opposition.

Ankara has refrained from commenting on the Syrian National Council's call for a bureau to be created to provide armed support for the Free Syrian Army, an armed militia that is fighting against Syrian security forces. The Syrian National Council, or SNC, an umbrella organization made up of opposition groups, made the call on Thursday in Paris and named Turkey as a possible location for the bureau.

But at a meeting on Friday between the SNC leadership and Turkey's foreign minister, both sides denied discussing the issue, saying the talks focused on the next gathering of the international group "Friends of Syria," scheduled to be held later this month in Istanbul.

The "Friends of Syria," brings together Arab and Western countries supporting the Syrian opposition.

Ankara continues to keep up the pressure on Damascus over its bloody crackdown on dissent.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday launched the latest attack against the Syrian government at a press conference with his Italian counterpart.

He said the Syrian army is massacring its own people - whereas before the government was using live rounds only against protesters, it is now shelling civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately. Davutoglu said this is not acceptable, even in war.

Turkey claims it has given sanctuary to around 10,000 Syrians fleeing the ongoing crackdown. With Syrian forces now moving towards resistance centers close to the Turkish border, more are expected to follow.

Ankara also has allowed the opposition Syrian National Council and members of the Free Syrian Army to be based in its territory. But the Turkish government has resisted, at least publicly, in supporting the arming of the opposition.  

Semih Idiz, a diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says the SNC's public calls for arming the opposition have embarrassed Ankara.

"Well, it leaves Turkey in a difficult situation. It contradicts a lot of positions in the past. Namely, about non-interference [in] other countries' domestic affairs. Engaging in this kind of power play with military involvement in another country actually stands to rebound on Turkey in other ways," Idiz said.

Ankara fears that any support for arming the opposition in a neighboring country could open the door to retaliation by Damascus by offering support to the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for greater rights since 1984, and many of its members are Syrian Kurds.

But international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University warns that with Syria's crackdown intensifying, Ankara's room to maneuver is becoming increasingly limited.

"Turkey is caught between [a] rock and [a] hard place. It has made a lot of claims about its power and influence. It is being drawn [into] a quagmire and [is] being asked to do things it does not actually want to do. Absolutely, Turkey wants the cover of some kind of international legitimacy, which it could not get from the U.N. Security Council," Ozel said.

Observers say support from the United Nations Security Council is unlikely, with permanent members China and Russia predicted to oppose any such move. Last month, both countries vetoed a motion that would have punished Syria for its crackdown.

Diplomatic columnist Idiz says the upcoming Syrian opposition forum could ultimately provide the means for Ankara to openly support the armed opposition.

"If there is a kind of consensus that has emerged among the so-called "Friends of Syria" group, I think yes. Because Turkey has engaged itself very strongly against Assad. If Assad continues to hammer his own people, then I think will be left with no choice. It will try to use the argument that had there been intervention in time [in] Bosnia, then 250,000 people may not have died," Idiz said.

There is speculation that Ankara is already providing armed support to the Syrian opposition, or at least facilitating it - a claim that Ankara strongly denies. Observers warn there is already growing unease in the country that Turkey is in danger of losing control of its own destiny in the deepening crisis in Syria. Those concerns seem destined to grow, with Damascus showing little sign of letting up in its bloody crackdown on dissent.

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