What lies behind Erdoğan’s al-Assad remarks?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reverted to his previous strong line on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during his recent visit to Tunisia, after a period of relative silence. “It is definitely not possible to move ahead in Syria with al-Assad … How can we embrace the future with a Syrian leader who has killed nearly one million of his citizens?” Erdoğan said during a press conference with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi last week.
Not so long ago these words would have attracted little attention, as Erdoğan’s enmity towards the Syrian leader is well-known. This time around, however, they attracted attention, and even the New York Times speculated about Erdoğan’s intentions.
It is the backdrop that makes Erdoğan’s words curious. Turkey is part of the Russian-sponsored and Iranian-backed efforts to end the Syrian civil war. Al-Assad, who enjoys strong backing from both Moscow and Tehran, is also part of this process.
This situation requires Ankara to come to terms with the fact that al-Assad will have to be part of any Syrian settlement. Erdoğan’s remarks may, therefore, have more to do with other issues and not with al-Assad per se.
The New York Times argued that “Mr. Erdoğan appeared to be reminding Russia that it cannot dictate Syria’s future alone, especially on issues sensitive to Turkey, most notably those involving Syria’s Kurdish groups, which Turkey sees as enemies.”
If this is the case it would be indirect confirmation that Turkey’s problem regarding the Syrian Kurds is not just with Washington but also with Moscow.
Turkey does not want the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to be part of any settlement in Syria. It says these are terrorist groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Moscow reportedly assured Ankara recently that the PYD would not be invited to the national congress it is proposing for Syria, which was received well in Turkey. However, not long after that Moscow said representatives from the large swath of territory in northern Syria, where the Kurds enjoy semi-autonomy under U.S. and some Russian protection, would be allowed to participate in the congress.
This basically means that while the PYD or the YPG will not be invited under their own names, Kurdish representation from the regions they hold will be allowed.
Given its burgeoning ties with Moscow, Ankara has remain silent on Russian support for the Syria Kurds, saying it is not against Kurdish representation as such, but the PYD and YPG. It has also indicated that it will boycott any effort to end the war in Syria that involves these groups.
Ankara has also been trying to push its own list of “Kurdish representatives” to take part in the Syrian congress, but is expected to make little headway in this regard.
The speculation therefore - as the New York Times suggests - is that Erdoğan’s remark about al-Assad is basically an indirect warning to Moscow, indicating that Ankara could disrupt a Syrian settlement if its demands are not met.
If true this will hardly contribute to deepening ties with Russia. As it turned out, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to Erdoğan’s remarks on al-Assad. “Such evaluations do not have any legal basis … Such statements are groundless,” she said.
If Erdoğan continues to pursue this line of argument it could also leave Ankara out in the cold as the Syrian talks move on despite Turkish protests.
If, however, this is only Erdoğan engaging in his usual brand of populism to appease an Islamic Sunni audience, especially after his recent international successes in mobilizing support against U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem decision, then this will blow over too and Ankara will continue to follow Russia’s lead in Syria.
However, that will require Turkey to accept al-Assad as a player in any Syrian settlement. It will also mean that Ankara will have to end up accepting Moscow’s definition of the Kurdish reality in Syria.