Erdoğan changes al-Assad stance after meeting Putin

Erdoğan changes al-Assad stance after meeting Putin

It was actually first written in the Geneva settlement on Syria that the incumbent Bashar al-Assad government is a party in efforts to end the four-year-long civil war there and perhaps establish a “new Syria.”

But Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan never acknowledged this in public. Erdoğan never mentioned the possibility of involving al-Assad in the process of reshaping Syria, because he saw the Syrian president as the only source of the problems - until yesterday.

After the Feast of Sacrifice prayer in an Istanbul mosque on the morning of Sept. 24, Erdoğan said that “perhaps” al-Assad could be involved in a “transition” to a new Syria but he should play no role thereafter. A Syria without al-Assad has been a slogan for a number of Western governments, the U.S. for example, but Turkey has insisted that the timing of al-Assad’s removal should come at the beginning of the “transition” period, not at the end of it.

This has been the first public statement of Erdoğan acknowledging the possibility, or even the need, to include al-Assad in the “transition” period. So far both he and Prime Minister (formerly foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu have promoted the idea of removing al-Assad from power first and then conducting the transition as envisaged in the Geneva understanding.

It is worth considering Erdoğan’s statement together with three developments in order to better understand this apparent change of stance.

Firstly, he made this remark upon his return from Moscow, where he was invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin for the re-opening ceremony of the city’s Central Mosque on Sept. 23. Erdoğan and Putin had a meeting there and Syria was among the issues they discussed. Importantly, right before the meeting the Kremlin told the press that Russia had nothing to talk with anyone about on the future of Syria, because it was down to the Syrian people, (as if there could be free elections in Syria under the circumstances). It was clear that Putin wanted to pre-empt Erdoğan’s possible suggestions about withdrawing Russia’s U.N. veto on moves on Syria, for example for establishing a “security zone” by the Turkish border.

Secondly, Erdoğan’s shift coincided with a statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that the West should consider talking to al-Assad for a settlement. This was the voice of the European Union, which is struggling with a flood of Syrian refugees, (though Turkey has been struggling with a much greater number of refugees for years).

Thirdly, it took place just before PM Davutoğlu’s departure to New York on the afternoon of Sept. 24 for the U.N. General Assembly sessions, where he was due to promote Turkey’s Syria policy, including the need to remove al-Assad and asking for solidarity in handling the refugee situation. After all, Ankara’s justification for a possible “security zone” is related to accommodating and protecting the refugees who would like to return to their homes in Syria. It was so important for him that - despite the will of Erdoğan who, according to whispers in Ankara, asked him to concentrate instead on the Nov. 1 election - Davutoğlu opted to devote a precious week of his campaign to promoting his Syria policy. Now will he defend this new position as voiced by Erdoğan?

The reason for Erdoğan’s shift could be read behind the lines of his words yesterday. He suggested that al-Assad wanted a “boutique,” (meaning a smaller, lesser) Syria, referring to a much speculated Nusayri/Alawite state in the west of Syria with access to the Mediterranean Sea, controlling only around 15 percent of Syria’s current territory including cities like Damascus, Latakia, Tartus, Hama and Homs. Turkey does not want Syria to officially disintegrate, which is why Erdoğan said he had told Putin about the importance of Syria’s unity. If the country disintegrates, a large chunk of Sunni territory would be controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and there would be a Kurdish state by the Turkish border. There is no need to say that both disturb Ankara.

It is also clear that Putin’s decision to escalate his support for al-Assad, sending additional war planes (to the Latakia air base), war ships (organizing a naval exercise), and even “trainers,” in addition to its military base in the Syrian port of Tartus, came after Erdoğan reached an agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama in July about opening up Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base for the U.S.-led coalition campaign against the ISIL.

It seems that Russia and the Syrian government’s other staunch supporter, Iran, have given the message with their body language that they would settle for a lesser but tightly controlled Syria. Turkey and the West would be more harmed by the consequences of this. Russia has played a similar game in Ukraine, knowing that the U.S. would not get into an armed conflict with Russia over Ukraine. There, the Kremlin got most - though perhaps not all - of what it wanted.

With Turkey publicly acknowledging the possibility of keeping al-Assad (at least) for the “transition” period, the U.S. and the EU may now have more room to maneuver in the Syrian theatre.