This article was published in Arab News on May 7, 2018.
Erdogan’s delicate balancing act faces new difficulties
Turkey’s Syria policy is moving toward a new bottleneck for several reasons. First, most of the opposition fighters that were defeated in various pockets of resistance throughout Syria have moved to the northern provinces that are under Turkey’s military control, or to areas where Turkey has an influence. Lately, the groups evacuated from Eastern Ghouta — including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, Jaish Al-Islam, Ahrar Al-Sham, and the Failaq Al-Rahman — have been added to them. Turkey will now be responsible for the security of one of the most precarious areas in Syria.
The Turkish decision-makers may be planning to persuade some of these groups to become “moderate” fighters and incorporate them into the Free Syrian Army, or another formation called the Syrian National Army. They may also be planning to use them as an additional fighting force to repress the Kurds’ aspirations of creating a strong local administration either in the form of a cantonal structure or federated administration. After the transition to democracy, they may be used as leverage on the Syrian government. Turkey may also be expecting the United States to support it in this endeavor because the US will stand behind any effort aimed at weakening the Bashar Assad regime.
This is an ambitious task and it cannot be taken for granted that everything will go smoothly, as some of these fighting groups are not interested in such an accommodation, either for ideological or political reasons.
Furthermore, there are difficulties that may arise from Syria’s attitude. Based on UN Security Council resolution 2254 that provides for a “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political transition,” the Syrian regime, with or without Assad, may oppose any solution that would come from outside, and all the more so from Turkey.
The second difficulty is the fragility of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran. If Turkey plays any concrete role in Syria, it is thanks to its partnership with these allies, both of which have voiced reservations over its Syria policy. Iran has said that any foreign military presence should be based on the authorization of the Syrian government. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that, now Afrin is cleared of the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Turkey has to turn the administration of the province over to the Syrian authorities. This common attitude was reconfirmed last month in Sochi, when Lavrov said the guarantor countries of the Astana process have to help the Syrian government in its fight against terror.
This is an ambitious task and it cannot be taken for granted that everything will go smoothly, as some of these fighting groups are not interested in such an accommodation, either for ideological or political reasons
As if this was not enough, the US has now voiced its unease at seeing Turkey prevent the Kurds, who had to leave Afrin during Turkey’s military operation, from returning to their homes, with Arabs evacuated from Eastern Ghouta instead settling in their houses.
Russia’s indirect support was important for Turkey in achieving its goals in Afrin. If Russia, which is controlling Syria’s air space, was not to turn a blind eye to the Turkish air force’s pounding of YPG targets, the progress of the military operation would have become much more difficult. Therefore, Turkey’s Syria policy may become more problematic if Russia withdraws its support, especially now that Ankara is at odds with the US on several issues. The strongly-worded support that it extended to the recent US-UK-France missile attack on the Syrian installations believed to be producing chemical weapons became an embarrassment for Turkey and it had to make a corrective statement to prove it is equidistant to both the US and Russia.
Third is Turkey’s unstable relations with the US. Several problems have already been lingering between them for years, including US support for the YPG; Ankara’s desire for the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen; the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US citizen who has been detained in Turkey since October 2016; the fine to be imposed on a Turkish state bank for its involvement in the violation of US sanctions on Iran; and the arrest of a Turkish gold trader of Iranian origin, Reza Zarrab, who is accused of being involved in the same violation of sanctions.
A more annoying problem is now added to them: The US pressure on Turkey not to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. Washington says these missiles are not interoperable with Turkey’s NATO air defense infrastructure. Some members of the US House of Representatives last week released details of a draft bill that included measures to temporarily halt weapons sales to Turkey until the Defense Department provides Congress with a report on the relationship between the US and Turkey.
Everything is further complicated by the Turkish parliament’s decision to hold early elections, one-and-a half years ahead of the scheduled date. The government will now need a success story to increase its votes.