Assad is moving out of Turkey’s threat perception
According to the prevailing atmosphere in Ankara, the Bashar al-Assad regime is moving out of Turkey’s threat and target perception, while Turkey is ready to welcome a Kurdish presence at the upcoming Geneva talks - with one big condition.
Could these shifts be thanks to Russia? Yes, at least partly. After all, it has only become possible to reach this conclusion after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s one-day tour of the East Mediterranean on Dec. 11 covering Syria, Egypt and Turkey.
Putin’s stopover at the Russian Hmeymim air base near Syria’s Latakia was an unannounced visit. The schedule was to go to Cairo first to talk with Abdel Fettah el-Sisi, mainly on energy (gas and nuclear) issues and U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He was then due to land in Ankara to talk to President Tayyip Erdoğan on a broader selection of issues, namely future of Syria, Jerusalem (two days before the Organization of Islamic Cooperation emergency summit in Istanbul), Turkey’s S-400 missile purchase project, and of course energy deals.
Regarding Putin’s short stopover in Syria, a video was released to the Russian media that was not something for al-Assad to be proud of. After welcoming Putin, al-Assad can be seen in the video trying to walk next to him on the tarmac, but he is obviously halted by Russian army officers next to him, one of whom physically holds his arm to keep him back.
But that is not why we can confidently say al-Assad is no longer considered a threat or a target for Turkey. The information leaked to the Russian media that Turkish officials admitted as much during the talks in Ankara is also not the only evidence.
The most concrete indication could be concluded from the remarks of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu during an interview for the private broadcaster NTV on Dec. 12. When asked whether Ankara is planning an operation against Afrin - the northwestern Syrian town near the Turkish border - like the one in Jarablus one year ago, Çavuşoğlu said it “depended on the perception of threat” from the region. Afrin is currently controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting with Turkey for more than three decades.
“Turkey’s target cannot be other countries or the Syrian regime, regardless of whether [diplomatic] ties are broken,” Çavuşoğlu said. “For the time being there is no such threat,” he added, indicating that “harassment” from Syrian regime forces have also stopped for some time, possibly due to Russian intervention.
These remarks do not mean that Turkey’s objection to al-Assad leading any new Syrian government – even if in just a transition period – has been lifted. Çavuşoğlu confirmed in the interview that it still holds. But what has changed is Turkey’s threat perception. Until recently Ankara considered the threat level from the al-Assad regime to be the same as that from the YPG/PKK and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Now it seems this threat perception is limited to the YPG/PKK and ISIL.
Çavuşoğlu also said Turkey “welcomes the participation of Kurdish groups” in the Geneva talks for the future of Syria. However, this is with the exception of PKK-affiliated groups, meaning the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD). “We have no problems with our Kurdish brothers, only with the YPG, which represents only a minority of Kurds anyway,” he added.
The U.S. Central Command has used the YPG as its ground force since 2014, despite objections from its NATO ally Turkey. Indeed, these days it seems that Turkey gets along with Russia more comfortably than the U.S. when it comes to matters in the Middle East.