Erdoğan’s main dilemma in Syria remains in place
A former chief of general staff, senior retired generals and diplomats, as well as many veteran politicians are all saying that if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to achieve his military and political aims in northern Syria, he has to overcome his antipathy for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and come to a security arrangement with Damascus along Turkey’s long border with Syria.
Many people believe today that it was wrong for Ankara to burn its bridges with Damascus at the start of the Syrian crisis. They say the channels of dialogue should have been kept open.
Many blame former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who later became prime minister until he was fired by Erdoğan in May 2016, for the impasse that Ankara faces in that country today. Davutoğlu was the architect of Ankara’s heady and overambitious plans for the entire Middle East after the Arab Spring broke out in earnest in 2011.
But throughout that time Erdoğan was the boss and Davutoglu could only act with his approval.
Erdoğan remains staunchly opposed to al-Assad and has made it a matter of honor to see the back of him in Syria. Only a few weeks ago he again declared al-Assad to be a “terrorist,” saying there could be no place for anyone in a future Syria that has killed his own people the way al-Assad has.
But the Turkish president does not seem perturbed when dealing with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has also killed many of his own people. He also does not seem perturbed by civilian deaths caused by Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen. One can only assume, therefore, that his antipathy for al-Assad is personal, and also perhaps driven by sectarian sentiments rather than universal principals of human rights.
Erdoğan’s dilemma is that al-Assad has the full support of Russia, which has enabled him to remain in power so far. It also looks like he will remain in place for the foreseeable future. There is not much Erdoğan can say against Moscow because he also needs Putin’s support at a time when Turkey’s links with the West continue to fray - no doubt to Russia’s delight.
The Turkish president is also beholden to Putin for Moscow’s decision to give the green light to “Operation Olive Branch” aimed at clearing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the northern Syrian district of Afrin. Russia had also given the green light to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation, launched in August 2016 to target both the YPG and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Moscow has made it clear that it does not agree with Erdoğan’s assessment of al-Assad. Neither has it given any indication that it is prepared to ditch the Syrian leader. In the meantime, al-Assad has come out strongly against “Operation Olive Branch,” showing in this way that he will continue to be a nuisance for Erdoğan.
The Russian media is also reporting about negotiations between Moscow and the umbrella organization of the YPG, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey says is also a terrorist organization like the YPG. Al-Assad and the PYD now have a joint interest in trying to undermine Turkey.
If this is happening with Russian consent (and it is hard to see how it could without it), it merely compounds Erdoğan’s dilemma. Ankara’s need to prevent such negotiations from bearing any fruit brings us back to the need for Erdoğan to finally make his peace with al-Assad.