Syrian Violence Requires U.S. Response

Working with the United Nations and Turkey Is Key

Michael Werz, Matthew Duss, and Tyler Evans present a way for the Obama administration to work with the United Nations and Turkey to end Syria’s war on its people.

A Syrian refugee man surrounded by children shouts during a spontaneous protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a camp in Yayladagi, Turkey, near the Syrian border, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
A Syrian refugee man surrounded by children shouts during a spontaneous protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a camp in Yayladagi, Turkey, near the Syrian border, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad continues its violent crackdown against demonstrators inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere around the region, with the repressing increasing in intensity and viciousness over the past several months. A recent Human Rights Watch report focusing on the Daraa governorate described “systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.” Thousands of Syrians have fled north to Turkey, with thousands more sure to follow.

While the options to resolve the crisis are very limited, the United States and its allies need to provide consistent leadership when it comes to addressing the ferocious suppression in Syria. The Europeans have already taken the lead, seeking support for a U.N. Security Council resolution designed to condemn the Syrian crackdown on antiregime protesters. It’s time for the United States, working with the international community and especially Turkey, to push back against these gross violations of human rights.

The resolution, sadly, has stalled at the United Nations. What’s more, there is no military option available, sanctions are already in place, Syria’s neighbors are divided, and the Arab League lacks consensus. Yet this is precisely why it is important for the United States to make its position public and be at the forefront of this U.N. debate. A number of reasons make this U.N. vote more than a merely symbolic exercise.

For one, the United States needs to forcefully take a proactive stand against Syrian repression. The current conflict is more than just a regional issue; it is one of global significance—a direct challenge to international norms of conduct that progressives endeavor to strengthen. Civilian populations and repressive regimes alike look to America’s response in Syria as a marker of what will and will not be tolerated by the international community. Failure to speak out against what is happening in Syria has the potential to embolden authoritarian regimes around the world. The United States should send a strong signal against antidemocratic regime repression.

Secondly, even when countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa indicate discomfort over a pending resolution against the Syrian regime—which Russia and China would in any case veto—the United Nations is still the appropriate venue for such an important debate. It would require important emerging regional powers around the globe to go on record for or against the Syrian crackdown. A clear position will provide room for the United States to develop more leverage vis-à-vis Brazil or India—and would welcome these important strategic partners of the future in the complicated world of diplomatic double standards.

Lastly, the Obama administration has rightly made reengagement at the United Nations a key element of its foreign policy agenda—having achieved great success in its efforts on Iranian human rights. Working with and supporting an important regional partner such as Turkey in this effort will also give cover to the government of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, creating opportunities to encourage it in a more positive direction as it continues to evolve.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the conflict in Syria comes at a difficult time for Turkey. The country’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is riding high after its recent election victory. On June 12, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, the conservative movement increased its share of the vote for a third consecutive time, an unprecedented achievement in Turkish politics. But the Syrian crisis that is erupting on Turkey’s doorstep will be the first major challenge in a hard road ahead for Turkey’s process of democratic consolidation and regional leadership.

Prime Minister Erdogan has condemned the repressive crackdown in Syria and spoke with Syria’s Assad on Tuesday, telling him to stop the crackdown. But he has not been forthcoming about how Turkey will confront the Assad regime if it continues to brutalize its own people. Ankara’s approach so far has been ad hoc and reactive. The plan seems to be to do what it takes to avoid seeming complicity in brutal repression—with commendable, but mostly stopgap policies like allowing Syrian dissidents to assemble freely in Turkey and holding the border open to refugees.

Yet when it comes to taking a firm leadership role, Ankara clearly has reservations. At this point, Turkey is not facing much pressure from its Western allies, providing some temporary respite. But with refugees coming across the border, bringing more and more stories of atrocity, the pressure increases. Speculation has started about a possible Turkish military intervention to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian border. But despite the growing crisis, it is unlikely that Ankara will be eager to join in any serious confrontation with its neighbor.

For the Western alliance, this is a problem since the Turkish government has considerable leverage over the Assad regime. The Turkey-Syria relationship was considered a showpiece of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu’s “zero problems” policy. The two countries have deepening social and economic ties, and Turkey is vastly stronger both economically and militarily. But Davutoglu’s foreign policy has mainly been aimed at expanding regional influence using soft power.

Domestic constraints are another obstacle in the way of a more assertive position. In the recent election, Turkey’s Kurdish party, the BDP, won an impressive 36 seats in the 550-seat parliament, increasing its size by more than a third. But infighting within the Kurdish political movement still leaves open the possibility of violent attempts to block any attempt for reconciliation with the AKP. Were the Kurdish militants of the PKK—the terrorist group operating from across the border with Iraq—able to reestablish their bases in northern Syria, then the Kurdish issue would be transformed back into a military problem rather than one of political consensus building.

But even though these predicaments are real, the outcome of a successful repression in Syria is worse. The country would be even more dependent upon Iran and ultimately the Syrian regime’s strategy of diverting attention toward the Golan Heights by encouraging Palestinians to cross the border could prove to be a successful tool that will be used again in the future.

The Obama administration needs to push for a stronger position from Prime Minister Erdogan while remaining sensitive to Turkey’s predicament. It can only do so by joining the multilateral efforts to end the violence in Syria and by continuing to rebuild the U.S.-Turkish relationship that has been neglected for almost a decade.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work focuses on climate migration and security and transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey. Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress, and Tyler Evans is an intern with the National Security team.

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Michael Werz

Senior Fellow

Matthew Duss

Policy Analyst