A compulsory switch in Syria
The highpoint of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the United States last week was his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on May 16. The warm welcome by the U.S. administration confirmed the importance it bestows on relations with Turkey. Although they touched upon many issues, the two leaders’ discussions in the White House and over dinner were focused on the Middle East. They confirmed during the joint press conference that they exchanged views on Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus, bilateral economic relations, Turkish-Israeli normalization, energy cooperation and the peace process in Turkey. Syria, however, dominated proceedings.
Turkey and the U.S. have long agreed on the necessity of change in Syria. They have been diverging on the modalities of the process. While Turkey preferred a speedy solution with international involvement, including the removal of President Bashasr al-Assad, the U.S. has been reluctant to involve the U.S. military and doubted the value and trustworthiness of the opposition groups, leading it to now move toward a negotiated solution.
The statements of Prime Minister Erdoğan before the visit had aroused anticipations in Turkey. He alluded to his intention to convince the U.S. administration to get actively involved, increase support for opposition groups and create a no-fly zone and safe havens in Syria. He even raised his suspicions about the Second Geneva Process, dismissing it as a waste of time. However, after meeting with President Obama, he asserted that Turkey’s and the U.S.’ stance over Syria were converging and that both sides would be working “for a transition to a democratic Syria without Bashar al-Assad.” There were no details how this would come about, though Prime Minister Erdoğan later confirmed to Turkish journalists that his thinking on Syria had evolved.
It has been clear for some time now that a realignment of Turkish foreign policy toward Syria has been coming. This was the obvious result of the international reluctance to get involved, the lack of capacity on the part of opposition groups to force the al-Assad regime out, the stamina of his international backers and finally the limits of Turkey’s own ability and power to effect a regime change in a neighboring country. Nevertheless, the meeting in the White House provided necessary face-saving for the government, as it tried every avenue to convince the international community to step up efforts to force al-Assad out. And there was not much left to do once the two bigger powers of the world, the U.S. and the Russian Federation, together with all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, agreed on a phased negotiated approach; one that would include the removal of al-Assad – eventually.
Turkey still has a crucial role to play in Syria. It is hosting several hundred thousand Syrian refugees; shares a long border with it; maintains contacts with various opposition groups; and can convince them to join the Geneva Process to talk to representatives of the Baath regime. Also, once a deal is brokered on the future of Syria, it will need rebuilding. There is no better-situated actor than Turkey to manage such a transition, provided that it will be able to reposition itself sufficiently to convince all the parties involved, including the Baath, of its good intentions and bipartisan stance. Turkey’s ability to change is tremendous and the case of northern Iraq is a good example of what it is capable of.
As the international community is preparing for the Geneva talks, we should bear in mind that finding a solution will take time, be difficult and need continued support from outside. The success of the process will depend on the patience and cooperation of international actors. In that, the converging policies of Turkey and the U.S. could provide realistic hope for the future of Syria.