The Middle East today is a garden. Since last spring, flowers of democracy have sprung up from the sand across the region. The conditions have been fair, and many of these flowers have bloomed, particularly for the Tunisian Tigerlily, the Egyptian Echinacea, and the Libyan Lilac (after a slow start). However, this winter a deep frost stunted the growth of the Syrian Sunflower.
The casualties of resistance in Syria continue to mount daily, with over 9,000 killed since this most recent uprising began in 2011. The condition of the Free Syrian Army, the main military opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, is dire and growing worse. The rate of refugees crossing into Turkey has doubled over the last few weeks, highlighting their desperation and creating an international refugee crisis. As one of the strongest powers in the region, Turkey should announce that its military will assist resistance fighters settled in a “safe haven” in northern Syria. If Syrian armed forces attack the resistance that has settled there, then Turkey will be obligated to intervene in kind.
There is historical precedent for creating a “no-fly zone,” such as those enforced by the U.S. and Britain in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein, as well as in Bosnia during the 1990’s. Turkish creation of a “zone of no-interference” would go one step further by adding the threat of force against any Syrian land incursion into the area. Here are five reasons why Turkey should not wait another day to implement this strategy:
1) Creating a “safe haven” in Syria would go a long way towards discouraging Syrian refugees from crossing into Turkey, easing potential budgetary and social tension issues related to settling the roughly 24,000 Syrian refugees currently residing north of the Syrian border.
2) Providing a safe area for the Syrian opposition to gather will help it unify into a cohesive national political and military front. Such a possibility should make the transition from authoritarian government to organized democracy much easier after Assad’s fall from power. Whereas the Libyans and Egyptians are still working on the shape and scope of their budding democracies, the Syrian opposition would be able to begin that process in earnest long before it will be required to lead.
3) A “safe haven” would allow for international aid to be safely placed in the hands of deserving civilians. Currently, with many innocent bystanders choosing to wait out the storm in the comfort of the major cities, it is very difficult to get food supplies and medical aid to them. With a geographic area established and protected by the threat of the Turkish military, the U.N. and other aid groups would have a secure place to distribute vital supplies.
4) The Turkish government has expended much political capital and effort over the past year extolling the virtues of the Arab Spring movement. Prime Minister Erdogan, on his tour of North Africa’s newest non-authoritarian states last autumn, said in Cairo, “The freedom message spreading from Tahrir Square has become a light of hope for all the oppressed through Tripoli, Damascus, and Sana’a.” Now is the time to prove those words true.
5) It is time for Turkey to move beyond its “zero problems with neighbors” stance, especially if one of those neighbors is a murderous tyrant. If Turkey wants to display its clout on the world stage, it needs to straighten up its own backyard garden. It must prove that it can play a leading role in solving a regional issue before there is more bloodshed and it becomes an international problem.
The greatest reason, though, for why Turkey should use its military to protect the Free Syrian Army is because it is the morally right thing to do. With each passing day, scores of Syrian protesters are murdered and the West has offered nothing but words in support. Now it is Turkey’s chance to step into the void created by a pre-occupied America and defend the lives of the innocent. Now it is Turkey’s time to prove that it is up to the first task of being a regional heavyweight: tending its garden.