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Politics and Policies: Dealing With Ankara No Turkey Trot for Damascus

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As Bob Dylan used to sing back in the 1960s: "The times, they are a-changin'." Indeed the times they are changing, even in Syria, the last bastion of staunch Arab nationalism. And if the Assad dynasty began its reign in a bloodless coup, here too, things have changed.

When it comes to intra-Arab issues, Syria's tactics of resorting to strong-arm policies when dealing in the complex, complicated and, often, backstabbing politics of the Middle East stems from the fact that Damascus has dealt with parties that have been politically and/or militarily far weaker than itself. By and large this has been the secret to the Assad clan's success over the past 40 years.

This has allowed Damascus to successfully impose its policies both at home and, at times, in neighboring countries. Call this strong-arm politics, if you will. The bottom line is that the tactic worked and kept the regime in power -- until now, that is.

But these are very perturbing times for the presidency of Bashar Assad, now fighting for its very survival, trying to suppress a vast popular movement that has popped up throughout the country. Since the young Bashar Assad took control of the country upon his father's death, relations between Syria and some of its neighbors have also changed, including those with one very powerful neighbor, Turkey.

This comes at an inopportune time, when Damascus needs all the friends it can get, given that it currently has few left. In recent years Turkey has been playing a growing regional role and the one-time close friend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is upset at what he claims are broken promises from Assad. Getting on the wrong side of Ankara may yet prove to be Mr. Assad's undoing.

Erdogan became angry at President Assad when he was promised that Damascus would stop the fighting and put an end to the bloody clampdown against the opposition.

Sources in Ankara say that Mr. Erdogan relayed this information to President Barak Obama, a promise upon which Assad later reneged. Erdogan took this very badly. It was at this point that Erdogan called the Syrian president "a liar."

In dealing with smaller countries or weaker entities, Damascus could easily get away with strong-arming its opponents. This was applied in Lebanon when the Syrians intervened during the earlier part of the civil war when Syrian troops entered Lebanon to defend the Christians. This tactic was later also applied against the Lebanese right-wing Christian parties when the Syrians shifted sides in the Lebanese civil war.

But that was until now, when the regime in Syria appears to have seriously upset a force far stronger that itself -- excluding its dispute with Israel -- and may well have to live with the consequences. The full impact of that political row is yet to be felt. For starters, Ankara is openly supporting the opposition to the Assad regime by hosting rebel groups on its territory, including members of the Free Syrian Army. One may also presume that these groups are not left alone wandering around the Turkish countryside but that the Turkish military and the country's intelligence services are, shall we say, advising the Syrian rebels? And this is but the beginning.

Sources in Ankara say that Syria cannot apply the same policies in its dealing with Turkey. Turkey has the largest military force in the Middle East; Turkey is a NATO member, is equipped with the best and the latest U.S. and West European military hardware. While Syria military is still using outdated Soviet-era military hardware.

Relying on strong-arm politics in its dealing with Turkey has cost Assad much he could ill-afford to lose. Turkey is a real force to be reckoned with in the Levant. And if memories serve well, upsetting the Ottoman Turks never proved to be a very intelligent policy. Upsetting modern-day Turks may not differ.

But President Assad may have an additional ace up his sleeve, estimating that perhaps he may call on the support of the Alawites who live in Turkey along the border area and in Adana, Mersin and other cities. The exact number of Turkish Alawites is still unclear as in recent census ethnicities were not taken into account. However, a 1970 census placed the number of Alawites in Turkey at about 185,000, which should logically place them at around 400,000 today.

The question, however, remains to see if Turkey's Alawite community will choose to partake in Assad's strong-arm politics, give in to it, or resist it. A question no doubt that both Assad and Edgogan must be pondering these days.

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Claude Salhani is a journalist and political analyst focusing on Middle East Issues and terrorism. He is the author of several books, including Islam Without a Veil.