Turkey cool to UN efforts on Syria

Turkey cool to UN efforts on Syria

The evolving situation in Syria continues to pose unexpected problems for Turkey. As pointed out in this column before, Ankara never expected Bashar al-Assad to last this long. Without al-Assad absenting himself, in line with Turkish expectations, it appears Ankara may have not only to live with him, but to find ways to cope with him in the future if developments continue as they are.

That will clearly be a hard one to swallow since Turkey more or less severed all political ties with al-Assad on Monday by recalling its ambassador in Damascus and closing its embassy. All lines of overt diplomatic communication between the two countries have thus been severed for an indefinite period.

But while this was happening, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was continuing with his efforts to bring al-Assad and opposition representatives together, in order to try and end the bloodshed in Syria and find a political settlement to the problem. 

The statement adopted last week at the UN Security Council, which was also accepted by Russia and China this time, has also bolstered Annan’s mission by supporting it openly and calling for this track to continue. This, however, is not to Ankara’s liking at all.

That was made amply clear by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan on Saturday in Almati, where his plane did a stopover to refuel before flying off to Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit. Talking to reporters in the Kazakh city, Erdoğan said they “did not approve of the Security Council statement,” adding, “There is no justice in getting the opposition to sit down with the regime.” 

Pointing at the number of civilians killed by the regime, he also expressed displeasure over Kofi Annan’s efforts by pointing out that the former secretary-general has had talks in Damascus without going to the parts of Syria that are suffering under al-Assad’s forces to see for himself what is going on. 

Erdoğan also accused Russia, China and Iran indirectly when he said al-Assad was managing to stay in place because of the support he was receiving from these countries. Given that he will be travelling on to Tehran from Seoul later this week, it will be interesting to note the nature of the conversation he will have with Iranian officials, who in turn are not exactly enamored of Turkey’s stand on Syria.

It is clear from Erdoğan’s remarks that Ankara is angry because the Security Council, with pressure from Russia and China, has effectively upgraded al-Assad’s status by accepting him as a potential interlocutor. This is not what Ankara wants. What it wants is al-Assad to go and the regime there to change. 

In other words Turkey is in the somewhat contradictory situation of having opposed other countries’ efforts to bring about regime changes in the region in the past, but has now landed itself in the position of wanting regime change in Syria.

Spokesmen for the Syrian opposition continue to insist they will never sit down to talks with al-Assad. But it is not as if the Syrian opposition is an organized and coherent force. If one is to go by press reports there are even serious divisions among Syrians in the refugee camps in Turkey.

This suggests that with Russia pushing from one side and the West from the other, elements of the opposition, if not every one, may in time come around to accepting the notion of negotiating with al-Assad. At any rate what is clear is that developments are not to al-Assad’s disadvantage. 

With Russian backing he feels much more secure now. He also is availing of the divisions within the opposition. In addition to this he can use the bombs that have started going off in Damascus to argue that the opposition is nothing but a gang of terrorists. This is no doubt why the opposition is trying to distance itself from those bomb attacks. 

All of this is very much out of keeping with how Turkey wants things to go in Syria.