Last month, after Syrian forces fatally shot four fleeing Syrians who had crossed into Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that under Article V, “NATO has responsibilities to protect the Turkish border.”
The Turks, who have grown increasingly anxious about the growing conflict in their neighboring country, have resisted direct military involvement without the international legitimacy of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Efforts to pass a resolution authorizing any intervention beyond humanitarian aid have been blocked by opposition from Russia and China.
But Turkey’s position has been evolving, with military officials who once opposed any kind of non-political intervention now seeing the region becoming increasingly involved in the crisis. Shiites and Sunnis in neighboring Lebanon battled this week over the Syrian situation, raising concern both in Ankara and Washington.
Officials in the region said that Turkey’s main concern is where the United States stands, and whether it and others will support armed protection for a safe zone along the border or back other options that have been discussed.
The United States and its allies remain formally committed to a U.N. peace plan being spearheaded by former secretary general Kofi Annan. Nearly two-thirds of an authorized 300 unarmed U.N. military monitors have arrived in Syria, with the rest due by the end of this month.
But even Annan has acknowledged the initiative has failed so far to significantly quell the violence or make progress toward a political transition. U.S. officials have said they feel constrained from declaring the mission a failure, at least until the full complement of monitors arrives. Annan himself has expressed pessimism over prospects for success.
Opposition figures said they have been in direct contact with State Department officials to designate worthy rebel recipients of arms and pinpoint locations for stockpiles, but U.S. officials said that there currently are no military or intelligence personnel on the ground in Syria.
The Pentagon has prepared options for Syria extending all the way to air assaults to destroy the nation’s air defenses. U.S. officials, however, have said that such involvement remains very unlikely. Instead, they said, the United States and others are moving forward toward increased coordination of intelligence and arming for the rebel forces.
The Sunni-led gulf states, which would see the fall of Assad as a blow against Shiite Iran, would welcome such assistance, but they would like a more formal approach. One gulf official described the Obama administration’s gradual evolution from an initial refusal to consider any action outside the political realm to a current position falling “between ‘here’s what we need to do’ and ‘we’re doing it.’”
“Various people are hoping that the U.S. will step up its efforts to undermine or confront the Syrian regime,” the gulf official said. “We want them to get rid” of Assad.
Since the uprising began early last year, U.S. efforts to promote a political solution have been stymied by Assad’s political intransigence and his ongoing military assault on Syrian towns and cities, as well as the opposition’s failure to agree on a unified political leadership or game plan.
Despite administration hopes that the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress would become an umbrella organization, it has failed to win support from minority Syrian Christians, Kurds, Druze and Assad’s Alawite sect. All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Free Syrian Army, the opposition military force, has resisted direction from the fractured political opposition. Its troops, many of them Syrian army defectors, are said to operate in independent entities spread across Syria, leading the United States and others in the past to express caution about assisting them.
Sly reported from Beirut.