Turkey changes Syria policy with al-Assad move

Turkey changes Syria policy with al-Assad move

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has given a green light to Bashar al-Assad remaining in a transitional government in Syria for a peace settlement, in a major shift in Turkey’s Syria policy.

“The most important priority for us is to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible,” Yıldırım said at a press conference in Istanbul on Aug. 20, later adding that the rest amounted to irrelevant “details.” He also said that the U.S. and Russia agree that al-Assad cannot hold Syria together in the long run but he could be considered for the transition. Upon a question, Yıldırım said Turkey’s deal with Russia to normalize relations had an “important share” in this policy shift.

It was first Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş who signaled a turn in Turkey’s much-debated Syria policy. In his words published in the Hürriyet Daily News on Aug. 19, Kurtulmuş said many of Turkey’s sufferings today were a result of its Syria policy. He added that he wished a viable perspective for peace could have been produced before now, but Turkey had failed to do that as had many other countries. 

PM Yıldırım said Turkey would “be more active over the next six months,” and Turkey has already stepped up its activities in the region within the framework of this new approach. A working group was established with Moscow on Syria right after President Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Russia, during which he met Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9. Two days after meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had a stopover in Tehran on Aug. 19 en route to India to meet Zarif again, (nobody trusts phone lines nowadays because of eavesdropping). Yıldırım has suggested that Turkey could contribute to a solution in Syria together with the U.S., Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, among others. “We are not pessimistic,” he stressed.

But will that solution be with or without Bashar al-Assad? Up to now the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government has insisted that the stepping down of al-Assad is a must for a peace in Syria. That was the main pillar of Turkey’s Syria policy when Erdoğan was prime minister and Ahmet Davutoğlu was his foreign minister, and later when Erdoğan was president and Davutoğlu was prime minister.

“He has the blood of 500,000 people on his hands,” Yıldırım has said, referring to al-Assad. “Will Syria be able to carry this burden? Today both the U.S. and Russia see that in the long run it is not possible. But for a transition [government], it is possible to sit and talk. It is obvious that, whether we like it or not, al-Assad is an actor.”

Does that mean that Turkey will sit and talk with al-Assad?

“Al-Assad’s counterparts are the opponents of the Syria regime,” Yıldırım said. “It is out of the question that we will talk with him. They [al-Assad and the opposition] are the counterparts. They should sit and talk ... Fixing an issue to one thing or person means you consenting to the deadlock.”

So Yıldırım is not in favor of fixing peace in Syria to al-Assad being removed from power, at least in the transition period. He also pointed to the sectarian nature of al-Assad’s regime, saying he was against an “ethnically oriented” government.

The stress that Turkey’s prime minister puts on the unity of Syria is due to rising threats from both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara is uncomfortable with the fact that the U.S. is cooperating with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces against ISIL, while the PYD is simply the Syria branch of the PKK. “The [extension of the] war in Syria returns to us in terms of separatist terror,” Yıldırım complained, giving another reason for the shift in Ankara’s Syria policy.

How did this about-turn, which was unthinkable in the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu term, become a reality under Erdoğan-Yıldırım? Together with Serdar Karagöz of Daily Sabah, we asked the question to Yıldırım.

“Finding a solution is the most important thing for us,” Yıldırım said. “It is important that no more people die. If we are going to save those people, to heel the bleeding wound, the rest are [irrelevant] details. All the rest could be talked through and a solution could be found. As I said, al-Assad cannot be a uniting figure in Syria in the long run, it is just not possible. The main countries involved - the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others - should come together and Turkey should make more effort on that.”

That perspective is similar to the idea that main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu proposed to then-Prime Minister Erdoğan in a letter almost four years ago in August 2012?  
Perhaps the issue will come up again during Yıldırım’s working breakfast with Kılıçdaroğlu and Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on Aug. 22. Yıldırım said the ongoing struggle against terrorism, the Syria crisis, measures being taken following Turkey’s bloody military coup attempt of July 15, and work for a new constitution, will all be discussed.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey on Aug. 24 will be another important date for Yıldırım’s new line. Syria is likely to top the agenda, together with Turkish demands for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gülen to be tried over masterminding the July 15 coup attempt. Denouncing the U.S.-based Islamic scholar Gülen as the leader of the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ),” Yıldırım said that “when the U.S. asks us to extradite someone with an arrest warrant, we do not ask about evidence. We think the enemy of my friend is my enemy too. And the agreement between us also says so. We also stress that nothing [bad] should happen to someone who is so closely involved in developments [related to the coup attempt]. But they should first arrest him and then extradite him to Turkey.”