Turkey has to break its Syrian stalemate

Turkey has to break its Syrian stalemate

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has turned out to be the main catalyzer of developments in Syria, putting powers which are otherwise rivals in a more cooperative mode over this crisis. But what does this mean in terms of Turkey’s expectations? 

Ankara’s policies continue to be based solely on seeing the back side of Bashar al-Assad and on preventing the Syrian Kurds from gaining more ground. One does not have to dig too deep in between the lines of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent remarks to reporters in New York to understand that these remain Ankara’s main concerns. 

The problem is that Turkey is rowing against a current that is getting stronger. It is apparent that for Washington and key European countries like Germany, the question of Assad is increasingly of secondary importance when compared to the need to deal with ISIL and the Syrian refugee problem. 

Russia, on the other hand, is more resolute than ever in supporting Assad. Iran, the other significant player Syria, is on the same page with Russia in this regard.  But what is uniting all these diverse powers, from the U.S. to Iran, today is the threat they perceive from ISIL. 

The half-hearted contribution by Turkey to the U.S.-led coalition’s operations against ISIL show that Ankara’s interests are still not in tune with emerging developments on Syria. On the contrary, there seems to be a diametrically opposed relationship here. The chances for Turkey to realize its expectations in Syria get weaker as the international community comes more in line on the issue of ISIL and Assad.

There is also the fact that while Assad is a universally hated figure in the West, his continuing presence is emerging as a lesser evil given the possibility of chaos reining in Damascus if he and his regime fall in a disorderly manner, creating an authority vacuum that can be filled by ISIL.

Davutoğlu got some encouragement from France, of course, after President François Hollande told the U.N. General Assembly that there is no place for Assad in any Syrian settlement and also partially backed Ankara’s call for a safe zone in northern Syria while in New York. Hollande is proposing a no-fly zone to be established in the region where Turkey wants a safe zone to be set up.

But France is alone in this regard too and not in a positon to help Turkey promote its line. For one thing, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who also believes now that a Syrian settlement has to involve all the parties in the conflict - has warned that setting up a safe zone runs the risk producing another Srebrenica-type tragedy if it is not protected properly.

This warning comes against the backdrop of the general refusal in the West to supply combat forces needed to protect this zone. There is also Hollande’s remark that a Security Council resolution can be obtained for the no-fly zone he is proposing to make it legitimate. This amounts to whistling in the wind, given that Russia will clearly veto any such resolution.

Like Ankara, Paris appears to also be rowing against the current with regard to Assad. The support Paris is giving to Ankara is only valuable to Davutoğlu in domestic politics at a time when the country heads for early elections. It enables him to say that contrary to what his government’s critics are saying Turkey is not alone internationally and has the backing of a major European power like France.

The bottom line is that making Assad’s downfall a precondition to a settlement only prolongs the misery in Syria at this stage. The priority should be to douse the fire first, by any means possible. Turkey has to accept Assad will have to be part this effort – whatever bleak prospects the future may hold for him otherwise. It will also have to accept that dialogue will have to be established with the Syrian Kurds, whose international profile is rising.  The alternative is that Ankara remains a non-player in Syria.