Turkey's Hand in the Syrian Opposition

The Turkish government would have every reason to try and steer Syria's activists, and it looks like they might be succeeding

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Syrian opposition demonstrators living in Jordan hold a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan during a rally in front of the Turkish embassy in Amman / Reuters

After seven months of wrangling to form a cohesive opposition movement, Syrian activists finally pulled it off with the formal announcement in Istanbul of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a body that mirrors the Libyan opposition's National Transitional Council in seeking international recognition. But the opposition group, which formed in Istanbul and is headquartered there, appears to be increasingly influenced by the Turkish government, which has so far played a significant role in helping to usher Syria toward a post-Assad era.

There are some good reasons to have confidence in the SNC. The group began by reaffirming its desire to see a democratic Syria with constitutional guarantees on civil and political rights. It also says it rejects foreign military intervention, arguing that the only way to topple Assad is through "peaceful" and "legal" means. Many of its top officials -- such as prominent U.S.-based dissident Radwan Ziadeh, newly appointed the head of the SNC's foreign affairs bureau, and Paris-based university professor Burhan Ghalioum, a member of the body's presidential council -- are secular, intelligent, and friendly to the West.

In 2007, Ghalioun went on Al Jazeera and said, in Arabic, that the two biggest problems besetting the Arab world were dictatorship and clerical control of the media, adding that these were mutually reinforcing.

Of the SNC's 230-member General Assembly, 55 seats are designated for grassroots domestic groups. Twenty seats apiece have also gone to selected special interests: Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood, the "Damascus Declaration" (a group of reformist intellectuals who emerged briefly in 2000 on the mistaken assumption that Assad, newly in power, would be an improvement on his tyrannical father), and independents. Another 20 are saved for any additional stakeholders who may join the SNC at a later date.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which belatedly joined the body en masse, appears to be over-represented. Although they now hold 20 seats in the General Assembly and another 5 seats in the Secretariat, Hafez al-Assad all but destroyed the movement in the 1980s. Syrian oppositionists I've interviewed in the past several months say they believe that Islamists represent, at most, 30 percent of the opposition -- and that figure, they say, is confined mainly to the ranks of the diaspora.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood, along with a collection of independent Islamists, have wielded significant influence within the SNC, owing largely to the Obama administration's "lead from behind" strategy in Syria, which has left Turkey as the main liaison to the opposition.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) almost certainly prefer a fellow Sunni government in Syria to replace the current Alawite regime. Although previously friendly to Assad, AKP's Turkey has since taken the lead among Islamic nations in condemning the regime's violence. Turkey has hosted the majority of Syrian opposition conferences on its soil, from Istanbul to Antalya. Ten thousand Syrian refugees who fled a massacre in the Idleb province last June are currently living in tents on the Turkish border.

Erdogan probably reckons that if he can't rein in the Syrian regime's terror, he'd better cultivate the inevitable alternatives. Turkey will wish to salvage its strong commercial relations with its southern neighbor. But it's more than that: the chance to lure Syria away from Shia Iran and toward fellow a Sunni Muslim power is likely too tantalizing to pass up. If Assad falls, then Iran will lose its only state ally in the Levant, weakening Hezbollah's position in Lebanon and almost certainly ending the Hamas politburo's residence in Damascus.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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