Paris - It is not clear whether the signs coming from NATO point to contradiction or cooperation among its member states. The answer about the fate of NATO's role in Syria is primarily held by Turkey, which holds all the trump cards, and in this is second to none, except perhaps Washington. Both Turkey and the U.S. seem at times, clearly hesitant, and at others on the verge of decisive action. They are both undergoing a test at the regional and international levels, and they are both wavering between domestic considerations, and strategic challenges that require a sense of leadership and initiative, rather than indecisiveness and retreat. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have trapped themselves by making a public pledge not to coexist with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both men have hesitated at times, backtracked at others, and then returned to pledging to topple Assad, whom Obama called "the dictator in Damascus". More than thirty thousand Syrians have paid the price with their lives, before the international community moved forward with the UN-Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's 'mission impossible'. Brahimi is pursuing a political solution which his predecessor Kofi Annan was unable to bring about, despite having exerted his utmost efforts and wagered on good intentions. Russia and China had wielded a third veto at the Security Council to prevent it from taking serious stances and measures against the regime in Damascus. But the Obama Administration found this an excuse for lifting up its hands in surrender, citing the impossibility of reaching a political solution. Washington thus took a backseat and adopted a policy of waiting for the regime to decay from within.
From the beginning, the administration made it clear that it was not willing to engage in direct military intervention. But its isolationism increased even further after it found another pretext to back down and prevent its friends from arming the Syrian opposition. This time, the pretext was the Salafists, as well as the jihadists from al-Qaeda and similar groups. Suddenly, the Western media, and in particular the American media, adopted a point of view that reflected the thinking of Washington officials that the spread of the "Salafist phenomenon" in Syria had become a threat, and one that was perhaps greater than the regime in Damascus. The possibility of coexisting with Bashar al-Assad crept once again into the American discourse - at the media and government levels - even though Barack Obama had previously declared that Assad must step down. Suddenly, as well, the rhetoric in use started invalidating the Syrian uprising against the regime's use of violence, and replaced it with claims about the prevalence of Salafists and their hold on the future of Syria. But the advocates of this claim forgot to remember the fact that the proportion of those jihadists, who speak the same violent language as the regime, did not exceed ten percent of the armed opposition, and that there are secular members of the military who had defected from the regime and are fighting against it.
Of course there is also the excuse of the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and its famously unfortunate and harmful divisions. A great many players have manipulated the Syrian opposition - including Europeans, Turks, Gulf Arabs and Americans. Turkey in particular has played a role which has perhaps contributed to widening the rift within the opposition - as have the Gulf Arab states. Add to this the initiative of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who called for a Syrian solution through an 'impossible quartet', as it was suggested it would include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey, no less. To be sure, this initiative resulted in division among the Arabs and provided Tehran, which is a direct party to the internal war taking place in Syria, with a seat at an imaginary table of negotiations for a regional political solution. Tehran stood to benefit immensely from this. While it "swallowed" the verbal insult directed at it by Mohamed Morsi, it understood perfectly well the value of having its isolation broken and of the gift that a seat at the table provided it with. Indeed, Tehran was being invited to take part in discussion into finding regional solutions for a battle that is essentially a regional one, which happens at this juncture to have Syria as its arena.
The United Nations Secretariat in turn welcomed the "quartet" initiative, considering it to be the way to introduce Iran as a direct party to the search for a political settlement in Syria. Indeed, Kofi Annan had from the start surmised that no solution would be reached without Iran. This had led Saudi and Qatari diplomacy to get upset at the notion of forcibly introducing Iran into reaching a solution in an Arab country. For one thing, Tehran has not hidden the vital importance Syria has in its regional plans for influence beyond its borders and for regional hegemony. Lakhdar Brahimi in turn seems to find in the "quartet" a gateway for his diplomatic and political efforts. Yet his visit to Saudi Arabia may show him the extent to which the Saudis are upset, not just at Annan and Morsi, but in fact at anyone who would adopt the "quartet" as a basis for a political solution. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) acted as a unified bloc when they coordinated with France during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, on the Libyan issue. Recall that they went together as a bloc to the League of Arab States and had it issue a position enabling the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to intervene in Libya, in order to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Today, there are differences between the stance taken by Oman (and by Kuwait to a lesser extent) and the stances taken by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain, which have made it clear that it was out of the question for them to coexist with the Assad regime under any circumstances. The countries of the GCC do not now have the choice to head to the Arab League and then to the Security Council, due to division among the Arabs and to the Russian-Chinese veto. This sexpartite bloc perhaps does not have the option of heading to NATO and asking it to intervene -for numerous reasons, including the difficulty for Arab countries to ask for the intervention of a non-Arab military coalition in Syria. In fact, it may not even be possible to reach unanimous agreement even among these six countries, due to the differences in their stances. With all this in mind, there remains only the Turkish gateway. Yet Ankara will not move alone militarily, even in the wake of the military skirmishes between Turkey and Syria last week. Ankara will only move under some kind of cover from NATO, of which it Turkey is a member.
The stances of NATO leaders, as well as of Washington, which has made clear that it was standing alongside Ankara against Damascus, bear important indications, of both a practical and political nature. This could lead to a qualitative shift in the Syrian issue. The Turkish government has sent the Syrian government a warning that it would move against it militarily if it continues its attacks on Turkish soil - regardless of whether such attacks are unintended and fall within the framework of pursuing the armed Syrian opposition to the Syrian-Turkish border. Moscow too has heard this warning, as well as the stances voiced by NATO and Washington. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has tried to enter the political arena, expressing his desire to visit Saudi Arabia. Yet Riyadh has not welcomed this, at least so far. Saudi Arabia is extremely angered by Russia's stances. It is not willing to hold in-depth discussions that would start from a Russian stance which clings to the regime in Damascus. To be sure, Russia only offers the idea of "dialogue" between the government and the opposition with the aim of preserving the regime. Moscow wants to inform all those it may concern that it has stopped supplying the regime in Damascus with weapons, and it wants them to know that it has interceded with Damascus, but that its influence has been limited - without publicly admitting that it has no influence at all.
The response to Russia's stances should be brief and succinct: lift the cover of protection from the regime in Damascus, and you will find it tumbling down to a swift end; stop declaring that you cling to it, and you will find it more willing to stop the bloodshed. The response to the stances of the United States, which fears al-Qaeda, the Salafists and jihadists, should be that the Obama Administration's procrastination - in addition to the Russian and Chinese veto - is what contributed to the growth of Islamic terrorism in Syria. For one thing, prolonging the conflict would be the greatest service Washington, Moscow and Beijing could provide jihadists and al-Qaeda. And the moment these capitals admit to this exceedingly clear fact, the inevitable result of such an admission will be a qualitatively new policy based on quickly ending the conflict.
The means of settling the matter is also quite clear, in both its military and political aspects. No one is asking Washington to intervene militarily. What is being asked of it is to speak a serious and decisive language with both Russia and China, either to reach an understanding over a Grand Bargain in which it would concede some influence and positions in favor of Russia; or to inform Moscow that the West will be adopting the Kosovo model. This would include the necessary adjustments - through the gateway of Turkey, with measures to impose safe corridors as well as a no-fly zone, and to allow the armament of the "secular" opposition in particular. Of course, there is the aspect of political work inside of Syria, in a manner similar to what took place in Iraq in terms of preparing the clans to turn against jihadist rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda or other groups. This is what Washington, European countries and other parties have started working on. Yet this is only part of the equation, and not the alternative to military intervention through Turkey.
The question now is about how serious Turkey's leadership and the U.S. Administration are. The American presidential elections have become imminent. Barack Obama is facing major criticism due to his retreat before Damascus and Tehran, while Republican candidate Mitt Romney is escalating against Obama specifically on this policy. Romney is pledging to settle the matter - so as for the regime in Damascus not to continue to be spared from being held accountable, for Tehran not to remain in control of the American-Iranian dynamic, and for al-Qaeda not to grow once again as a result of American negligence.
The coming weeks will reveal the extent of contradiction or complementarities between the American stances being issued against arming the Syrian opposition and what is taking place behind the scenes through the gateway of Turkey. Indeed, if the Turkish leadership were to carry out what it has pledged, this will represent a qualitative shift in the course taken by the crisis in Syria.