Turkey changes tack on Syria

Turkey changes tack on Syria

While Syria continues to strain Turkey’s ties with Russia and Iran, all three countries are ensuring that the tension is contained. Barbs have been exchanged between Turkey and Russia after the Syrian passenger plane forced down by Turkish jets last week en route from Moscow to Damascus.

It is still not clear just what was found on the plane, despite claims that missile components are involved. But President Vladimir Putin put his foot down on Wednesday, saying they would supply arms to Damascus until a U.N.-sanctioned embargo was imposed. That will not happen of course since Moscow is using its veto to ensure no such embargo comes out of the Security Council.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov nevertheless went on record as saying that Russian-Turkish ties were “solid” and would not be shaken by this incident. The situation with Iran is not much different either. The two countries are at odds over Syria. Containing tensions, however, has been a historic dimension of Turkish-Iranian ties.

Given this backdrop, eyes were turned on the meeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the Economic Cooperation Organization summit in Baku earlier this week.

No meeting had been planned, in fact, giving rise to speculation that Turkey and Iran were trying to avoid each other due to differences over Syria. As it turned out, however, more than niceties were exchanged during impromptu Erdoğan-Ahmadinejad talks.

Erdoğan told reporters later in Ankara that the discussion had centered on Syria. He said there was a need for Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria, but that Saudi Arabia did not want to sit down with Iran.

Because of this, Erdoğan said they proposed a set of “triple mechanisms” to be set up, with one bringing Turkey, Egypt and Iran together to discuss Syria, the second Turkey, Russia and Iran, and the third Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

This represents a significant shift in position by Ankara, of course. It was no more than a few months ago that Ankara looked coolly on any discussion on Syria which involved Russia and Iran due to their unconditional backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But having failed to “internationalize” the Syrian problem, as it wanted, Ankara seems now to be inclined to “regionalizing” the problem, aiming for a settlement that involves key regional players.

Erdoğan also said they had agreed with Ahmadinejad to try and secure a cease-fire in Syria for the duration of the upcoming Feast of the Sacrifice holiday, which will be celebrated across the Islamic world. If they are successful, this will be the first positive result of cooperation between Ankara and Tehran on Syria.

It will also encourage further joint efforts by the two countries given that follow-up talks between foreign ministers are planned. The Russian input will also be important, of course, given the position it has secured for itself in the Middle East due to the Syrian crisis. At any rate, it is a regional power with an interest in the Middle East that goes back centuries.

Neither the U.N., nor the West, has managed yet to come up with anything concrete for Syria. The Erdoğan government has made it a habit of expressing its deep disappointment because of this. Meanwhile, the situation continues to unfold in that country in a dangerous way for Turkey.

Cooperation, rather than confrontation, between regional powers could break the deadlock. These are countries, after all, that are directly affected by the Syrian conflict. Remaining at odds over Syria will simply prolong the crisis by turning it into a proxy war.

If, however, the proposed set of “triple mechanisms” works, this will also put Turkey back on stage as a proactive player aiming for stability in the Middle East, rather than being a player that inclines toward sectarian, and therefore ultimately divisive, preferences.