Turkey’s Syria policy in the Aleppo-Russia test

Turkey’s Syria policy in the Aleppo-Russia test

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Dec. 6 said the situation in Aleppo case was a “disgrace” for the West.

While she was speaking, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was in Moscow shaking hands with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev before meeting with President Vladimir Putin. 

Ankara has been the most determined supporter in the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime throughout the five-year civil war in Syria. It has also been a firm advocate of the opposition resistance in Aleppo against the al-Assad forces, backed by Russia.

A vote on Dec. 5 in the U.N. Security Council on a proposal for a week-long cease-fire to supply humanitarian goods to trapped people in the city was vetoed by Russia and China, two of the five permanent members. Encouraged by the vetoes, Damascus stated on Dec. 6 that there would be no cease-fire until the rebels are wiped out of Aleppo. Merkel’s remarks came after this vote.

They could also be taken as strong and belated self-criticism on behalf of the West. Turkey’s Syria policy has had a number of contradictions and inconsistencies, but who in the West has had a consistent and responsible Syria policy? Turkey got into risky relations with Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition, leading to awful consequences such as a greater wave of terrorism. But the U.S., a NATO ally, has gotten into risky relations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), after idly watching the emergence of ISIL for years.

Again on Dec. 6, outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there were actually six wars going on in Syria, referring to Turkey in three of them. It seems that for Kerry, Turkey has been a bigger problem in Syria than the presence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or Hezbollah, or the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It was NATO membership that helped Turkey get out of the major crisis after it shot down a Russian plane in November 2015 for violating the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey eventually mended fences with Russia in June 2016 and Yıldırım’s visit yesterday was one result of the “normalization” of relations.

It coincided with the Aleppo vote and a veto by Russia and China, two major countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that President Tayyip Erdoğan wants Turkey to be a part of, snubbing Western allies.

Again on Dec. 6, the top Turkish and American soldiers, Gen. Hulusi Akar and Gen. Joseph Dunford, met at Turkey’s strategic air base İncirlik, which is a staging point for U.S.-led operations against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. They talked about “recent operations” which naturally included the situation in Aleppo, the advance of the Turkish-backed Free Syria Army, FSA rebels in the ISIL-held town of al-Bab in Syria, as well as the level of American cooperation with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia, which is considered as the Syria branch of the PKK and is an issue that greatly disturbs the Turkish government.

As NATO allies, or “the West” as Merkel called it, could not find a common ground for a workable Syria policy because of a lack of coordination and contradictions among themselves, Russia and Iran are seemingly the winners of this game, at least for the time being. Iran has tens of thousands of Revolutionary Guards in the Syria and Iraq theater, plus the militia of Hezbollah at the aid of Syria and the al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq.
Russia had an aging naval base in Tartus, Syria, as its only military presence in the entire Middle East and the Mediterranean. Now the Tartus base is being expanded with modern facilities, while Russia is also using an air base in Hmeimim, near Latakia, and pursuing a military agreement with the EU-member Greek Cyprus to use its ports. All in all, Moscow is back in Mideast politics, after its withdrawal following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1992.

Turkey is trying to find a way to achieve its targets, which have narrowed from overthrowing Bashar al-Assad to stopping the PYD, to having full control over its 910-kilometer border with Syria.

With more uncertainties in the future with the advent of the Donald Trump administration in the U.S., it won’t matter for Ankara whether it achieves that goal with the U.S. or Russia.