The present regime in Syria has been in power for over 40 years since its founding by Hafez al-Assad in 1970. His son Bashar succeeded him in 2000. However, it seems that the family’s reign is now nearing its end.
Many people and forces have been working to achieve this goal. A sizable portion of the Syrian people, disenchanted with the regime and enthused by the Arab Spring, began protest demonstrations against the government, but these were harshly repressed. This internal unrest encouraged foreign actors to move in seeking to advance their own agendas that, though differing in their ultimate goals, all required the end of the regime and the firm control that it exercised over the country.
These external players can be divided into three groups. There is the Arab grouping led by the Saudis; their main aim is to knock down a strong ally of Iran, plus increasing their influence in the Middle East. Another group is the West, which desires to remove a regime that is an ally of Russia and Iran, and a strong opponent of Israel. The third external player is Turkey, which is seeking to become a dominant power in the region. Even though it disliked the regime’s Russian dependency, it was not initially opposed to it; instead it sought to exploit the country’s troubles to bring it under its wing. However, when Assad refused to go along, it turned against him.
Each of the external players has set up indigenous proxies through which to push their agendas. The Arabs are sending in money and weapons to their supporters and agents inside Syria. The West is content to let the Arabs play the lead role in fuelling the unrest while conducting a diplomatic and information campaign against the regime. Turkey has provided a base to the main external opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as well as, more recently, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a force of military defectors. While Turkey does not control the SNC, it does exercise considerable influence over many of its constituent groups; however, it has much more control over the FSA.
This cycle of protest, armed resistance and repression could have gone on for a long time, because the Syrian regime still has the support of the majority of the population as well as the allegiance of the military. The regime could probably have withstood the Arab subversion and the West’s diplomatic offensive, but it cannot last if Turkey decides to move against it. There are now tantalizing signs that decision has been taken, or is imminent.
Recent indications pointing in that direction are the increased attacks by the FSA inside Syria, or at least the prominence being given to them. Also significant is the statement by the head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (which is part of the SNC) “accepting” Turkish intervention in his country. The Brotherhood, with a strong base of support in Syria, is the political party closest to Turkey’s government, and this statement is unlikely to have been made without their clearance. Concurrently, Erdogan has started talking about “action to stop the bloodshed”.
It appears that other parties have also become concerned about this eventuality and are scrambling to prevent it happening. The Arab League has abandoned following through on its ultimatum and, instead of suspending Syria, is continuing to engage with it. The French foreign minister has rushed to Ankara. Even Russia is now supporting the idea of Arab League monitors going to Syria. None of them want Turkey to become the ‘saviour of the Syrian people’.
If Turkey has indeed decided to intervene in Syria, it would be to forestall a messy outcome that would create a destabilized country on its border, in which Saudi, Israeli and Western interests could pursue their goals. Turkey is competing with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the Arab world, and such an outcome would have been detrimental to its prospects, as it also would in its power struggle with Israel in the Middle East. A friendly Syria under Turkish influence would greatly increase its clout in the Middle East and the Arab world.
Turkey doesn’t need to move troops into Syria to effect regime change there. The threat of that, with some obvious preparations, as well as economic pressure would do the trick. They would cause the Syrian military and the powerful business class to realise that the regime had to go. Turkey would hope that, after a transition period, a Brotherhood government would establish itself in Damascus.
That is the prize that has likely moved Turkey to action, which would spell the end of the long lasting Assad dynasty.