A secret meeting in southern Turkey between the Syrian National Council, or SNC, and the self-proclaimed Free Syrian Army has resulted in the creation of a joint commission and an action plan to fight Damascus, the Hürriyet Daily News can reveal.
After meeting in Hatay, a Turkish province that borders Syria, the SNC, an umbrella group of Syrian dissidents, and the fighting force, a group of army defectors, established a "joint commission" to coordinate their struggle against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Both parties have decided that the Free Syrian Army will "not organize any assault" against the Syrian regime anymore, and will resort to "armed resistance" only for "defensive reasons."
"The leader of the Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Asaad, has agreed that the movement in Syria will stay as civilian. [The army] will be responsible for protecting civilians during protests," SNC Executive Committee member Ahmed Ramadan, one of the attendees at the secret meeting, told the Daily News on the sidelines of the Turkish-Arab Media Forum in Istanbul.
The Wednesday Hatay meeting was attended by the SNC, which is headed by Burhan Galioun, and the Free Syrian Army's al-Asaad. Other high-ranking SNC members, including Ramadan and Sweden-based Abdulbaset Seida and Mahmoud Osman.
Four high-ranking army defectors and four high-ranking SNC members agreed to form the eight-member commission, Ramadan said. Members of the joint commission from the SNC are "the people responsible for foreign affairs, youth affairs, information and Syrian refugee issues," Ramadan said, refusing to reveal the names of the four defectors.
"This was the first meeting in which the leaders of the SNC and Free Syrian Army came together. The aim was to create a joint action plan. This is why we formed this joint commission," Ramadan said.
A total of 10 individuals attended the Hatay meeting, which was held at a refugee camp.
Al-Asaad "expressed the commitment of the Free Syrian Army to the SNC and its program" at the meeting, according to Ramadan. "The Free Syrian Army is not going to organize any attacks against the regime anymore.
The SNC, with a membership of over 260, was established in Istanbul in September. Galioun, who leads the organization, is based in France. The secret Hatay meeting came days after France invited non-European Union member Turkey to an EU foreign ministers' meeting to be held on the topic of Syria – an admission of Ankara's key role in the developments.
Turkey's participation fell through, however, because of reported opposition from Greek Cyprus. The French proposal was also a product of growing cooperation between Ankara and Paris over the Arab Spring in recent months.
Trade with Syria Hit by Turkey's Sanctions
Turkey's suspension of all financial relations with Syria and the freezing of Syrian government assets in the country have the potential to cause a serious decline in bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria, said a top executive of the Turkish-Syrian Business Council Tuesday.
"The sanctions seem to be rather symbolic, but will cause decline in trade relations," Sadık Yıldız, a council board member of the Foreign Economic Relations Board, or DEİK, said, commenting on Turkey's sanctions against Syria.
While there were not strong relations between the central banks of both countries, Yıldız said, "the decision will still cause concern among businessmen." He said Turkey also froze nearly $250 million in Eximbank credit to be used in projects in Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey would stop all transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria, except for existing transactions, and would halt all credit agreements signed with Eximbank to finance Syrian infrastructure projects.
"We have already stopped all our operations in the country," Yıldız said. "Sanctions are a sign for Turkey's position as it seems to continue to affect business relations. Trade between Turkey and Syria has already decreased by 50 percent this month."
Turkey and Syria had nearly $2.5 billion in trade volume in the last year, according to official data.
White House Welcomes Turkey's Sanctions on Syria
Washington praised Turkey's sanctions against the Syrian regime for its brutal crackdown on an eight-month uprising and urged other governments to follow suit.
"The leadership shown by Turkey in response to the brutality and violation of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people will isolate the [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad regime and send a strong message to Assad and his circle that their actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated," said White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor in a statement.
He also said the United States commends the Turkish government for its announcement of economic sanctions and other measures against the Syrian regime. On Wednesday, Turkey said it had suspended all financial credit dealings with Syria and frozen the Syrian government's assets, joining the Arab League and Western powers in imposing economic sanctions on al-Assad's government.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told a news conference that Turkey, Syria's largest trading partner and a rising Middle East power, will also block delivery of all weapons and military equipment to Damascus as part of measures aimed at persuading al-Assad to end the crackdown on protesters. Senior officials in al-Assad's administration, and business people who have provided strong support to the government, will also be banned from traveling to Turkey.
Davutoğlu said Turkey would also consider taking additional measures in the future. A Foreign Ministry official said the sanctions would come into effect immediately. The move by Turkey, once a close friend of Syria, piles further pressure on al-Assad and comes after the Arab League announced economic sanctions on Damascus.
The White House's statement said the measures announced by the Turkish government on Wednesday will undoubtedly increase pressure on the Syrian regime and that the U.S. continues to call on other governments to join the chorus of condemnation and pressure on the Syrian president so that the peaceful and democratic aspirations of the Syrian people can be realized.
"President [Barack] Obama has coordinated closely with Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan throughout the crisis in Syria and will continue to do so going forward," the statement concluded.
Muslim Turkey was once one of Syria's closest regional allies, and Erdoğan had built a strong rapport with al-Assad. But as the violence grew worse and al-Assad ignored Erdoğan's advice to halt a crackdown on protesters and make urgent reforms, relations became increasingly frosty and Erdoğan bluntly told al-Assad he should step down.
Turkey now hosts Syrian military defectors and an umbrella Syrian opposition group. Turkey, which last year had a bilateral trade of $2.5 billion with Syria, has said it is weighing new trade routes to bypass Syria should violence there continue.
Turkey, which has a 900-kilometer-long border with Syria, said on Tuesday that it did not want military intervention in Syria, but was ready for any scenario, including setting up a buffer zone to contain any mass influx of refugees.
The Turkish military set up a security buffer zone inside of northern Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991 and has maintained small detachments there ever since.
Ankara Not Officially Invited for EU'S Syria Meeting
The European Union failed to convince Greek Cyprus to invite non-European Union member Turkey to the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels where the Syrian crisis was to be discussed Wednesday.
France had earlier proposed Turkish participation in the meeting, given its critical role in the Syrian crisis, an idea that was backed by Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as some other EU countries. But Greek Cyprus vetoed the proposal on the grounds of its ongoing bilateral dispute with Turkey regarding Cyprus; Turkey said it will not recognize Greek Cyprus' six-month presidency in the second half of 2012, with President Abdullah Gül describing the prospect as "half a country" leading a "miserable union."
For many in Ankara, this is evidence of the failure of the EU in becoming a global power as its foreign policy is hijacked by Greek Cyprus, one of the bloc's smallest countries.
"We have not received an official invitation from the EU. We have no plans to join the EU meeting in Brussels," diplomatic sources said Tuesday. "We understand the problem within the EU could not have been solved."
The meeting will take place with the participation of EU foreign ministers, as well as the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby, who will make a presentation on the content of the Arab League's sanctions against one of its own members, Syria.
"The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby, will be the guest of the working lunch that will follow the formal session of the council," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said. He said Foreign Minister Alain Juppe would stress the urgency needed to respond to the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria.
Sources said Turkey would consider going to Brussels were they to receive an invitation.
Turkey Uneasy Over Iran's Threats Toward Ankara
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has told his Iranian counterpart that Turkey is uneasy over recent statements by some Iranian officials with respect to Turkey, the Turkish state news agency reported.
Davutoğlu was referring to recent threats Iranian officials issued against Turkey as part of the standoff between Iran and the West over nuclear imbroglio and the NATO missile shield Iran claims is aimed at it.
"Iran will target NATO's missile defense installations in Turkey if the United States or Israel attacks the Islamic Republic," Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Iran's Revolutionary Guards' aerospace division said last Saturday.
Tensions have been rising between Iran and the West since the release of a report earlier this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency that, for the first time, said Tehran was suspected of conducting secret experiments with the sole purpose of developing nuclear arms.
The U.S. and its Western allies suspect Iran of trying to produce atomic weapons and Israel, which views Tehran as an existential threat, has warned of a possible strike on Iran's nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
Tehran says NATO's early warning radar station in Turkey is meant to protect Israel against Iranian missile attacks if a war breaks out with the Jewish state. Ankara agreed to host the radar in September as part of NATO's missile defense system aimed at countering ballistic missile threats from neighboring Iran.
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who met Davutoğlu in Jeddah on Wednesday on the sidelines of a gathering on Syria, put together by the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, said he does not share these statements and they don't reflect official Iranian position.
Kurdish Leaders in Talks with PKK, Will 'Exercise Maximum Pressure'
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said his regional administration has been in talks with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, to stop their assaults against Turkey and will exercise the maximum pressure on the terrorist organization.
"We are in contact (with the PKK) and will exercise the maximum pressure on the PKK to stop their military operations because this is playing with the fate of the Kurdish people," Barzani, himself a former militant leader, said.
Attacks by the PKK members on Turkish military have prompted Ankara to launch air strikes on the Iraqi border mountains since August.
"Now is not the time for military operations, one can fight for a cause in peaceful and democratic ways, this is the solution," Barzani told Reuters in an interview.
His region is facing shelling and air strikes by troops in neighboring Iran and Turkey, who are trying to strike camps run by the PKK and its Iranian offshoot PJAK. Both use the Iraqi border mountains as a refuge from Turkish and Iranian military.
Shelling and air strikes have forced some Kurdish villagers from their homes along the border.
Barzani said his government could consider sending local Kurdish Peshmerga forces to the region's borders with Iran if the situation deteriorated further.
Future Status of Kirkuk
Barzani said the United States' withdrawal from Iraq next month will not impact security in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, but Baghdad's delay deciding the fate of the disputed city of Kirkuk could prove "dangerous."
He said he is ready to work with the central government to avoid a deterioration of security as Washington pulls out its remaining 13,000 troops by the end of December.
"The U.S. withdrawal will not have any impact on the security situation in the Kurdistan region, because there have been no American forces in the region. As for the rest of Iraq's security, there is a worry," he said. "We are ready to cooperate with Baghdad so as not to allow any security breach or void," he said.
Baghdad and the northern Iraqi capital of Arbil have a long-running dispute over territory and oil rights along their internal border, especially over who controls Kirkuk city, which sits atop some of the world's largest oil reserves.
A census to determine whether the city has a Kurdish or Arab majority that would back up either claim has been repeatedly delayed. The tussle over the disputed territories is seen as a potential flashpoint as U.S. troops withdraw.
Barzani said his administration would continue demanding a vote on the fate of Kirkuk -- claimed by the Kurds as their ancestral homeland -- without any concessions.
"We have exercised the maximum levels of flexibility on this issue and when we approved Article 140, we had no doubt on the identity of these areas, they are Kurdish areas," Barzani said.
Article 140 in the Iraqi constitution calls for a resolution of dispute areas through different stages including voting in a referendum. The census would be a key initial step toward a vote on resolving the territorial dispute.
"The future of Kirkuk is linked to the execution of article 140, if this article was executed then the issue of Kirkuk would be solved and the people of Kirkuk are the ones who will decide their fate," he said. "If there are delays or (attempts) to avoid the Iraqi constitution, then the future will be really very dangerous."
Iraq territories disputed by Kurds and the Arab-led government in Baghdad, include Kirkuk and areas in the troubled northern Nineveh province.
Moody's Says Turkey's Rating Could Be Upgraded
Turkey's rating could be upgraded if the country pursued fiscal and monetary policies that reverse the recent growth in internal and external imbalances, Moody's Investors Service said on Wednesday.
"Credit-positive pressure could also develop if the government consolidates its buffers, such as foreign-exchange reserves; these would improve the sovereign's resilience to balance-of-payment shocks," it said in its annual sovereign report on Turkey.
The positive outlook on Turkish government's sovereign debt rating of Ba2 reflects the resilience of country's economy during the global financial crisis, Moody's said.
The strengthening of the government's balance sheet in recent years has also improved its ability to withstand shocks, it said. The rating agency added that Turkey's most significant challenge is the current account deficit and its financing.
U.S. Enters New Phase in Iraq After Pullout, Biden Says
In an unscheduled visit to Iraq ahead of his trip to Turkey, United States Vice President Joe Biden said the completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year will start a new phase of U.S.-Iraqi relations.
"We are embarking on a new and a comprehensive relationship between the United States and Iraq as sovereign partners," Biden said after meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials.
The remaining 13,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end December, when a bilateral security pact expires, nearly nine years after the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
President Barack Obama announced last month that U.S. troops would come home at the end of the year, as scheduled, after talks to keep a small number of American soldiers in Iraq as trainers fell apart over the issue of immunity. U.S. officials had asked for around 3,000 troops to stay in Iraq, but Maliki's government did not have the political capital to push an agreement on immunity through parliament.
Seeking to counter skepticism about why the U.S. will still have such a large presence in Iraq, which will hold the largest American Embassy in the world, Biden said the U.S. needed to have experts in a wide range of areas "on hand, in country," The Associated Press reported. The U.S. will also have thousands of diplomatic personnel and security contractors to protect the embassy's facilities in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Irbil and Basra.
Around 200 U.S. trainers will be attached to the embassy's Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq; 700 civilian trainers will help Iraqi forces train on new U.S. military hardware they have purchased like F-16 fighters and Abrams tanks.
"No doubt, U.S. forces have a role in providing training for Iraqi forces," Maliki said at the end of the meeting of a bilateral coordination committee, Reuters reported. "The relationship we establish today is based on the will of two countries."
Biden was expected to arrive in Turkey Wednesday and will hold talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül. Talks will focus on ways of expanding trade, cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and the uprisings in Syria and other Arab nations.
Biden's agenda will also cover Turkey's troubled ties with Israel and Armenia, the Cyprus issue and the situation in Afghanistan.
Israel to Resume Transfer of Funds to Palestinians
Israel is to resume transferring millions of dollars in customs duties to the Palestinian Authority, public radio said Wednesday, but the prime minister's office said no decision had yet been taken.
Public radio reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's so-called Forum of Eight senior ministers had voted in favor of resuming the transfers, nearly a month after it froze them over Palestine's admission to UNESCO. But an official in Netanyahu's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister had not yet made a decision.
The transfer of tax and tariff monies collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians was frozen on November 1, after their admission to the United Nations cultural organization over the objections of Israel and the United States. Since then, Netanyahu's inner cabinet has met several times to discuss releasing the funds, but opposition from ministers including hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman kept the freeze in place.
Lieberman and some other senior ministers have said they oppose the release in part because President Mahmud Abbas's secular Fatah movement is moving ahead with the implementation of a reconciliation agreement with Islamist rival Hamas.
But reports this week suggested Netanyahu was ready to release the funds, partly because of international criticism of the freeze. And on Monday, the premier told his foreign and defense affairs committee that the freeze could soon be lifted.
"We recognize a respite on the Palestinian side from unilateral moves," he said in an apparent reference to both the UNESCO admission and Abbas's bid to have Palestine admitted to the United Nations as a full member. "We don't know how long this situation will continue, but things seem to have calmed down."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has supported the resumption of the transfers.
"Our stance is that monies should be transferred, they belong to the Palestinians, are collected by us," he said on Monday. "I'm happy the issue is being re-thought."
Every month, Israel transfers tens of millions of dollars in customs duties, which are levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports, and which constitute a large percentage of the Palestinian budget. But Israel often freezes the transfer of the funds as a punitive measure in response to diplomatic or political developments viewed as harmful.
The last time the monies were frozen was in May, shortly after Fatah signed an unexpected unity deal with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.