Turkey must help push the diplomatic track on Syria
The downing of the Syrian helicopter by Turkey was probably welcomed in government as well as military circles in Ankara, who no doubt saw this as payback for the downing by Syria last year of a Turkish jet that had momentarily strayed into Syrian airspace while on a mission in the eastern Mediterranean.
But this event is unlikely to lead to a military escalation between the two countries given the diplomatic advantage Bashar al-Assad gained after accepting the Russian-brokered deal for his chemical weapons. The Erdoğan government, however, is clearly unhappy about this turn of events.
The feeling in Ankara is that al-Assad has been given extra time to prepare for more attacks against his people. There is undoubtedly some truth in this. It is equally clear, however, that Ankara is out of tune with developments concerning Syria, having misinterpreted many crucial aspects of this crisis.
For one thing, Turkey should have factored in the tangible reluctance of the international community to get militarily involved in this crisis. It should also have factored in the symbiotic relationship the al-Assad regime has with Moscow and Tehran, which have worked perfectly for him thus far.
These countries have made al-Assad’s staying in power a strategic goal and have so far succeeded in ensuring this. It has been clear for quite some time now, and remains so today, that unless there is an agreement between the United States and Russia on some negotiated solution to this crisis, it is very unlikely that the military stalemate in Syria will be broken.
It is also evident that in the absence of such a negotiated settlement, scores of people will continue to die. Since no Western country is prepared to arm the anti-al-Assad forces in any meaningful way, or intervene militarily against al-Assad, the “Geneva 2” format involving the United Nations and all the members of the Security Council, is the only way forward for Syria.
It is extremely unpleasant to see a bloody dictator like al-Assad at the table of course. But it must be recalled that Slobodan Milosevic, an equally distasteful dictator, was at the table in Dayton, Ohio, where the talks that ended the bloody Bosnian War were held. History did not let Milosevic escape in the end, of course, and a similar fate could be waiting for al-Assad.
The point now, however, it that al-Assad’s presence appears inevitable if the desire is to end the bloodshed in Syria soon. What happens to him after that, and what follows for Syria and the region after the bloodshed is ended is an open question, of course. But the initial aim must be to stop the bloodshed by diplomatic means since there is no military solution in sight.
This is why the U.S.-Russian effort is important, even if it concentrates only on the question of chemical weapons for now. If there is success in this area, it will open the door for more talks that can touch on ending the violence. This does not please Ankara, but continuing to push for a military solution is merely going to prolong the suffering in that country.
Once the bloodshed ends after a negotiated settlement, it will still take a massive international effort to help the new Syria emerge. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s suggestion that all will be good for Syria once al-Assad goes is too simplistic at this stage. It will take many years, perhaps decades, to erase the traces of the civil war before the democracy that Erdoğan envisions for Syria emerges.
That, however, is something to worry about after the violence stops. In the meantime, it is important for Ankara to stop shadow-boxing over Syria and to help the diplomatic track along. There appears little else that Turkey can do other than this now that matters stand where they are.