A murder, an accord and the end of Ankara’s ‘Assad must go’ policy

A murder, an accord and the end of Ankara’s ‘Assad must go’ policy

When news broke of the horrendous murder of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov in the heart of the Turkish capital, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was on his way to Moscow to meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts for critical talks on Syria. No doubt the assassination was a rigorously crafted time bomb aimed at producing swift implications for the Moscow trilateral. Not only did that not happen – judging by the initial reactions – it also did not have a devastating impact on Turkey-Russia ties, which are still in recovery mood following last year’s downed fighter jet crisis. One might even argue the events of the last days have the potential to draw Ankara even closer to Moscow. 

In Turkey, the shock caused by Ambassador Karlov’s murder and the acute attention needed for a criminal investigation unsurprisingly surpassed the content of the deal sealed at the Moscow trilateral. But the sidelined West, especially the United States, paid close but skeptical attention to the content of the meeting in Moscow as well as the alignment itself, with the three countries not even feeling the need to consult the United Nations. 

Meanwhile, the Turkish media failed to grasp the importance of – or most probably consciously chose not to focus on – the mind-altering content of the Turkey-Russia-Iran accord on Syria that was signed on Dec. 20. 
As much as we have seen some implicit shifts in Ankara’s Syria policy in the last months, the rhetoric on the need to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remained solid. It was only a few weeks ago when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey entered Syria to end the rule of the cruel al-Assad, only to later have to rephrase his statement following a phone conversation with a likely less-than-impressed Vladimir Putin to say, “The Operation Euphrates Shield is not targeting either a state or an individual, but only terrorist organizations.” 

Against this backdrop, I can’t help but wonder how and when Turkey came so far as to openly concede the legitimacy of al-Assad’s Syria, since the first article of the declaration stated that “Iran, Russia and Turkey reiterate their full respect for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian, democratic and secular state.” 

If I am wrong and the Turkish position that al-Assad must go to restore peace in Syria has not changed, then what is the meaning of reiterating full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic? 

Furthermore, the fifth article of the Moscow declaration confirms Ankara’s consent not only to recognize a possible deal between the current Damascus regime and the Syrian opposition but also to become one of the guarantors of the prospective agreement, which is being negotiated. 

It is evident that the Moscow accord does not meet the major demands of the opposition, meaning the chances for it to provide the unique basis for a much-needed political solution in Syria are not high. Plus, the key players in the West, including the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who have the potential to influence the political negotiations, were left out of the equation in Moscow. Besides, it will be gripping to watch how President-elect Donald Trump will navigate the American interests in the Syria game without menacing his romance with Putin after he is sworn in next month. 

No matter how the pendulum swings between the U.S. and Russia over Syria in the coming months, Turkey’s signature on Dec. 20 in Moscow might be used as a strong reference point when the time comes for a final judgment on the future of al-Assad and his regime.

We are living in the age of hyper-reality, as what is real and what is fiction often gets mixed up. Perhaps the assassination of Ambassador Karlov was a plot to keep us busy with the profile of the Turkish assassin while setting the ground for the next episode, which could be even more exciting than the end of the Erdoğan government’s “Assad must go” policy.