Turkey’s Syrian policy appears stationary

Turkey’s Syrian policy appears stationary

There is a flurry of new activity on Syria but none of it has Bashar al-Assad’s departure as the principle aim. The effort is increasingly focused on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The fear is that if Assad falls hastily and in a disorderly manner, the way Saddam did, Damascus will be overtaken by chaos and overrun by ISIL and other al-Qaeda related groups. 

This is the last thing that even a staunchly anti-Assad regional power like Saudi Arabia wants, let alone western countries. Russia, for its part, continues to stand behind the Syrian regime and is determined to help it ensure ISIL does not gain more ground.  

Recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry, on the other hand, show that the U.S. has also started toying with the idea of factoring in Assad in a Syria settlement. What Washington is saying at this stage is Assad should determine, through negotiations, how he will depart over a period of time. 

Developments, however, could turn this over time into negotiations on how Assad should stay, especially with Russia and Iran standing firmly behind him. All of this goes against the grain for Ankara. 

Erdoğan’s remarks on his return from Moscow last week, in which he hinted that the transition period in Syria could include Assad, caused excitement, leaving many wondering if this signaled a change in Turkey’s Syrian policy. Ankara has insisted all along that Assad’s departure is a “sine qua non” requirement for peace talks on Syria.

Aware of the negative impression his words gave his Islamist grassroots followers, who remain staunchly opposed to Assad, Erdoğan back-peddled later and clarified his remarks by indicating Ankara’s initial position remained unchanged. Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s remarks to reporters as he headed to New York for the U.N. General Assembly also show this. 

Ankara’s existing policy, though, has failed so far, and it is not clear what Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are relying on in maintaining it, especially as the U.S. and Russia inch closer on Syria and agree on the need to prioritize the fight against ISIL. 

There are also reports that Iraq, Syria (meaning the regime), Iran and Russia are establishing a center in Baghdad to coordinate their fight against ISIL. This represents a new step towards legitimizing Assad. The fact that Iraq, a U.S. protectorate, is involved shows that Washington will not be too far away from this activity if it takes off. The continuing U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is also a development that has to be considered in this context.  

Meanwhile France, which like Turkey has been insisting Assad must go, has also started bombing ISIL targets in Syria, showing its priorities are also changing. While all of this is happening, the Syrian Kurds, whose organizations Turkey wants the world to recognize as terrorist groups, continue to increase their profile in Western eyes due to their effective fight against ISIL, not to mention their secular leanings. 

While all of this occurs, Turkey continues to push for a safe zone in northern Syria, ostensibly for Syrian refugees. Most believe, however, that Ankara’s real aim is to prevent further advances by the Syrian Kurds in that region. Turkey’s chances of success in this regard, though, appear as slim as ever.

Erdoğan and Davutoğlu want to maintain their known Syrian policy to appear consistent in the eyes of their Islamist supporters. The only consistency out of Ankara thus far, however, has been failure. Everyone can make mistakes, but only the wise know when the time has come to change course. 

It appears Turkey under Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are not there yet, if they ever will be. Many believe that there is little chance of Turkey moving towards rational approaches in foreign policy as long as the reigns remain in the hands of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The only chance of this changing seems to lie in a defeat for the AKP in the November elections.