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It's Time for Turkish Leadership on Syria

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As the new year begins and Syria lurches toward civil war, there is no logical scenario where Bashar al-Assad can legitimately hold onto power without killing many thousands more of his people than he already has. United Nations estimates of more than 5,000 dead since the uprising began in early 2011 seem quaint compared to the more than 20,000 people Assad's father, Hafez, killed over a two-week period in Hama in 1982. For his part, Bashar has just begun.

So far, the entire international community has shunned the Syrian people. The Arab League last week sent observers to Homs, the scene of horrific brutality against unarmed civilians. The observers canvassed the town, interviewed a handful of people, and reported to the press, essentially, "What atrocities? We didn't see any atrocities."

At the United Nations, the Russians and Chinese have made it clear that they will block any Security Council action against Syria, no matter how many casualties accrue. The French tried almost a year ago to raise the alarm in New York, but nobody else was willing to make a commitment and Syria is barely on the agenda there anymore.

NATO hasn't been any better. Despite some protestors in Syria going to demonstrations with signs saying, "Where is NATO?" Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said in October that the body has "no intention whatsoever" of intervening. Normal diplomatic niceties notwithstanding, Rasmussen's statement was essentially the back-of-the-hand to Syrian protestors.

The Obama Administration from the beginning of the uprising has shown that it does not have the stomach for involvement. Libya, with its pure oil and proximity to Western Europe, was one issue. Syria is an entirely different animal, although the stakes in Syria are much higher than they were in Libya.

Bashar al-Assad's downfall would shake the Iranian regime to its foundations and would isolate Iran in ways that sanctions never could. Syria is arguably Iran's closest friend and ally in the world, it is the conduit for money and weapons to Hizballah in Lebanon, and it allows Iran, its advisors and its weapons to be positioned that much closer to Israel.

So if the Arab League, the United Nations, NATO, and the U.S. have no intention of helping the Syrian people, who can? Frankly, only Turkey has the national interests, the means and the domestic political will to get the job done. Prime Minister Erdogan has expressed support for a five-kilometer "buffer zone" inside Syrian territory to protect Syrian refugees (and to stop them from flooding into Turkey, creating a humanitarian crisis and taking Turkish jobs); the Syrian opposition has asked for a 30-kilometer buffer zone.

But so far, the Turks have not proposed anything else, least of all any real assistance to the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council that would allow them to work to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan speaks frequently about Turkey taking its place as the region's primary power, but doesn't back it up with much more than threatening Cyprus over drilling for natural gas in the Mediterranean, training Libyan troops in Turkey and promising "assistance" for Iraq.

These actions beg the question, "Where's the beef?" If Turkey is serious about being a real regional power, it will have to take on some of the more difficult, or even intractable issues, like Syria. 2012 will likely see the fall of Bashar al-Assad, whether in an expanded popular uprising or from a bullet to the back of the head. Turkey must be on the scene if it is going to have any say in the makeup of the new Syria. The time for Turkish leadership is now. The world will soon see if Ankara is up to the task.

John Kiriakou was a CIA officer from 1990 until 2004, and senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2009 until 2011.