This article was published in Arab News on April 9, 2018.
Turkey’s major dilemma in Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week hosted his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, for a summit in Ankara. No tangible result may have come out of this encounter, but it might still become a major turning point in the Middle East. But that will depend on other developments taking place in the fluid environment of the region.
Turkey’s position in this equation is more sensitive than the other two actors because it has to make certain adjustments in its Syria policy in order to achieve a concrete result in this trilateral cooperation. It is a member of NATO and an important actor in the US-led coalition to fight Daesh, providing logistical support by letting US jet fighters use Incirlik Air Base in its territory, while it is also acting in Syria together with the main opponent of NATO, Russia.
An important conclusion of the summit is the emphasis that the leaders have put on Syria’s territorial integrity. Russia and Iran have been doing so since the beginning, while Turkey only started to refer to Syria’s territorial integrity after the Kurds’ aspirations for autonomy began to be voiced more loudly. But Turkey’s commitment has now become more binding since it was reaffirmed at a summit. It is also an indirect commitment by Ankara that it will withdraw — once the situation in the country is stabilized — from the Syrian territories where it has a military presence. This is a welcome development, which increases the predictability of Turkey’s Syria policy.
Despite their agreement on Syria’s territorial integrity, these three countries follow different paths on several other issues.
Turkey and Iran are against the emergence of a Kurdish belt in the north of Syria. However, their positions are not identical. Turkey is strongly opposed to any initiative that will promote the Kurdish cause, while for Iran an arrangement that facilitates its transit to Lebanon is more important than other targets. Russia continues to support the Kurdish cause within the framework of the territorial integrity of Syria, but it has also disclosed its preference for a federal structure in Syria. This is a nightmare scenario for Turkey. Therefore, the present solidarity will be difficult to uphold if Russia does not come up with a solution that will satisfy Turkey.
Turkey faces a tricky balancing act if it is to make trilateral partnership with Russia and Iran work.
A similar difference exists in their attitude toward the US. They are all unhappy with one chapter or another of US policy in Syria. Turkey is furious about the support that Washington provides to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, but it follows a parallel path with US policy by not considering any role for Bashar Assad in the future of Syria. Turkey insistently implores the US to fulfill its Obama-era promise to withdraw YPG fighters from the Manbij district to the east of the Euphrates. So far, the US has managed Turkey’s demands with half-promises. A confrontation cannot be discounted if these two NATO allies fail to reach a compromise.
Turkey slightly toned down its narrative on Assad, but its attitude on this particular issue is far from that of Russia and Iran. It remains to be seen how these controversies will be eliminated.
Russia’s attitude on US policy in Syria is a classic example of rivalry between two superpowers for the regional hegemony. Iran, meanwhile, considers the US presence as a direct threat to its own national security.
Turkey’s present Syria policy has several facets that the trilateral cooperation has to sort out. On the news of the latest chemical attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Turkey’s reaction was more strongly worded than those of its NATO allies. The general tone of the comments by Western countries, including the UK, France and the “establishment” in the US — not President Donald Trump — was that “if it is confirmed that the attack was carried out by the Syrian government, it will suffer the consequences.” Turkish leaders, including Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim used language that presupposes it has already been confirmed the attack was carried out by the Assad regime. This hasty attitude distances Turkey from Russia and Iran, with whom it is cooperating in the Astana process, and puts it in a position that is closer to its NATO allies. This is a contradiction that Turkey now faces and may also face more often in the future.
Meanwhile, after being ousted from various pockets of resistance, several opposition factions, including those in Eastern Ghouta, have moved to areas where Turkey has to secure the observance of the de-escalation. If Syria’s territorial integrity has to be maintained, these factions must be eliminated or incorporated one way or another into the future Syria. Turkey will have to assume the very difficult task of persuading these factions either to give themselves up or assume a role under the Syrian regime that it was trying to overthrow.