Skip to main content

Turkey may be Obama's key to solving Syria crisis

By Ed Husain, Special to CNN
May 16, 2013 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ed Husain: Mideast allies want U.S. involvement to stop Syria violence, but U.S. reluctant
  • He says when Obama meets with Turkey's prime minister, he should back Turkey taking lead
  • Husain: Diplomacy needed, but Bashar-al-Assad is wily, understands force
  • He says Israelis, Arabs, Turks can cooperate to help rid Syria of al-Assad with U.S. help

Editor's note: Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of "The Islamist" can be followed on Twitter via @Ed_Husain.

(CNN) -- Almost every American ally in the Middle East is desperately calling out for help, and we are ignoring them. Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain -- and behind closed doors, even Egypt -- want American involvement in Syria to stop the blood bath.

But the twin ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have paralyzed America in the Arab world.

On Thursday, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will visit President Barack Obama in Washington. This is an ideal opportunity to throw American weight behind greater Turkish leadership in resolving the Syrian conflict -- and declare as much from the White House. The conflict is spreading fast outside of Syria, and unless regional powers such as Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia are empowered to act militarily, and swiftly, many more lives will be lost and the Middle East further destabilized.

Ed Husain
Ed Husain

Only this weekend, Bashar al-Assad's intelligence agencies were linked to two car bombings in Hatay, Turkey, that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 100. Syria is now home to radical Sunni Islamists from across the globe who want to bring down al-Assad, and Shiite fighters from Hezbollah who support the Syrian president.

Beyond geopolitics and games of nation states, Syria is a raw human disaster: Some 80,000 people have been killed, 1 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries, and millions more are displaced inside Syria. For how much longer will we stand by and watch?

I oppose direct U.S. military intervention in Syria, but recent actions by Israel, daring attacks on Turkey and last month's rapprochement between these two important nations means that there is now new scope for greater regional involvement in Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry is right to pursue a new diplomatic settlement through Moscow, but his hand is only as strong as the force gathering on al-Assad's doorsteps. In other words, let us say yes to diplomacy, but not be naïve and think that al-Assad and his Iranian backers cannot outmaneuver the wiliest diplomats. They have rebuffed at least five other such attempts. Diplomacy must be backed by force. Al-Assad understands the language of military strength -- of armies keeping fighting factions apart, aircrafts enforcing a "no-fly" zone, bombs on his runways, tanks outside his presidential palace, ships on the seas.

That is not to say that the killings continue. Erdogan has been sensitive when dealing with PKK terrorists in not killing them for fear of collateral damage. That same spirit of protecting human lives must inform Turkish leadership in Syria.

Inside Syria's intelligence headquarters
Syrian refugees stuck in limbo

First, al-Assad and his family need to leave Syria for Russia, Iran or elsewhere. Their days of ruling like a mafia are over. Large segments of the Syrian people have lost their fear of al-Assad, and will not settle for anything less than his departure. He must either do so freely and immediately, or meet the fate of Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein.

Second, al-Assad is not the protector of Syria's minorities, as many mistakenly believe. He is the cause of mass killings that are likely to get worse without external intervention. Genocide of Syria's minorities will have a ripple effect on tribes and religious minorities in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey and regional and NATO forces should make it their utmost priority to prevent it.

Third, with all their divisions and sectarian pettiness, it is the Syrian opposition that must own Syria. Colin Powell's admonition that "If you break it, you own it" cannot be applied to outside countries with Syria -- the owners must be the Syrian opposition (with all its flaws), not Turkey, far less Israel or Saudi Arabia or others who "break" al-Assad's grip.

Fourth, removing al-Assad and safeguarding Syrian communities is not the end, but a new beginning. Syria can go in any number of directions. The challenge from Islamist radicalism and terrorism inside Syria is real -- they can be confronted there, and prevented from traveling elsewhere and spreading their virus of violence. As Syria works toward rebuilding its infrastructure, economy, society and polity, the United States cannot turn its back on a country that shares borders with Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon.

For now, Washington needs to respond to the calls of our allies in the Middle East, and in doing so, bring Turks, Israelis and Arabs closer in cooperation as they seek to liberate Syria from the clutches of a corrupt clan and ensure it remains free from the fanatics of Islamist fundamentalism. Closer engagement by these three regional forces through U.S. assistance now also puts in place roots for a post-al-Assad Syria that is less hostile to Israel. America does not need to lead always; it can and must support its allies.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Husain.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT