How will Turkey respond to new developments in Syria?

How will Turkey respond to new developments in Syria?

Developments in Syria in general, and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in particular, are moving fast since Russia decided to get openly involved to support President Bashar al-Assad with its military.

The invitation to Iran to the international talks on Syria is one such development. Another one is the latest remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter indicating that Washington is preparing to get actively involved against ISIL on the ground in Syria. 

This confirms that the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIL has not provided the expected results. We also know that the “train and equip program” turned out to be a fiasco after Syrians “trained and equipped” in Turkey were routed by radical Islamic groups as soon as they entered Syria.

Recent reports on U.S. and Iraqi forces storming an ISIL stronghold in Iraq and releasing hundreds of prisoners is also highly significant. Clearly Washington does not want to lose more ground to Russia, which has grabbed the initiative in Syria. 

Turkey is preoccupied currently with what may be one of the most critical elections in the country’s history, and has little time to focus on such developments. Even Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s revelation on a pro-government channel that Turkey had struck Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces in northern Syria received little coverage. 

Davutoğlu’s remarks might be no more than bluster on the eve of elections, of course. If true, however, Turkey can expect turbulence in its ties with the U.S. which is moving toward deepening its involvement in Syria by working closer with the PYD. Davutoğlu’s remarks could also deepen Turkey’s growing impasse with its own Kurds.

The bottom line here is that Ankara continues to row against strong international currents, even if it is determined to stop the Syrian Kurds from gaining an area for themselves along its border. It is not unthinkable either that there are those in this country who support the idea of assisting radical groups fighting the PYD. 

Put another way, Turkey is not in the role of a “maker” here but of a “spoiler.” If it cannot get what it wants, it will try to spoil what is emerging. This position, however, could come at a high cost in the long run.

Iran’s invitation to the talks on Syria to be held in Vienna tomorrow is also a development that is displeasing to Ankara at first glance. Russia and Iran will promote a line at these meetings which is contrary to Ankara’s thinking for the future of Syria. 

But Turkey is not in a position to be a spoiler in this regard, and the fact that it has more or less accepted that al-Assad has a role to play in any transition period in Syria attests to this. 

Just as there are overlapping interests between the U.S. and Russia in Syria – particularly on the question of ISIL – even though they are in the throes of a new cold war, Ankara and Tehran have overlapping interests also in terms of the Syrian Kurds, even if they are at loggerheads over al-Assad.

Retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, the former chief of the General Staff, was quoted in the papers on Tuesday as saying that Turkey and Iran are the only two regional powers that can prevent the emergence of a greater Kurdistan, which as he pointed out, Tehran is also vehemently opposed to. 

Ankara’s single-dimensional Syrian policy, which has been marked with failures, is unsustainable and requires flexible thinking according to developments on the ground. A new look at ties with Iran is also needed now. 

How Ankara hopes to dig itself out of the weak position it has landed in with regard to regional crises should become more apparent after the elections on Nov. 1. What is clear at this stage, though, is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has left Turkey with little room to maneuver in the face of important developments on its borders.