What is Turkey’s current role in Syria?

What is Turkey’s current role in Syria?

The fall of Aleppo has seemingly put Turkey at center stage again in the Syrian crisis. There is much news about negotiations between Ankara and Moscow for the evacuation of the city, and speculation about the summit proposed by President Vladimir Putin in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, which aims to bring representatives of the Bashar al-Assad regime together with representatives of opposition groups.

Analysts are noting of course the absence of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations in the current talks between Ankara and Moscow. The Islamist support base of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appear happy over this turn of events, given their disdain for the U.S., the EU, and the U.N.

The fact that Turkey is cooperating with a power that enabled the downfall of Aleppo and assisted in the perpetration of what many see as war crimes in the city is apparently lost on them. Ironic as it may be, given Moscow’s committed battle against fundamentalist Islam, “Better Russia than the West” is a slogan that one comes across a lot among our Islamists.

There is much praise now in the pro-government media as to how Turkey has grabbed the initiative in Syria again, and how it will set the pattern with Russia for the solution to this crisis. The grip of fantasy thinking in Turkey with regard to Syria appears to be as strong as ever.  

To start with, Turkey did not negotiate with Moscow for a cease-fire between the government and opposition fighters in Aleppo. For this to happen, the opposition would have to have the capacity to fight on if its terms were not met. 

What was negotiated instead was the terms of the opposition’s surrender, the way in which the Sunnis of Aleppo would be evacuated, and the manner in which the city would pass into al-Assad’s control. Ankara is facilitating this by being the intermediary between opposition fighters and Moscow, which is acting on behalf of al-Assad.

Al-Assad is no doubt happy to see Turkey help negotiate what will amount to the ethnic, or rather sectarian cleansing of the city. He is also likely to allow Turkey to remain in northern Syria militarily to provide a safe haven for Sunni refugees, while he continues his battle elsewhere. 

He knows that Turkey is unlikely to be permitted by Russia to allow this “safe zone” to be turned into a region for anti-regime elements to stage attacks on al-Assad forces. Al-Assad also unburdens himself from any responsibility of having to care for these refugees, since Turkey appears more than enthusiastic to do this.

Al-Assad must also be delighted about Turkey’s keenness to participate in the Astana summit, where it will represent the opposition, for two reasons. First, it will mean that Ankara officially recognizes the al-Assad regime, because it has to accept it as an interlocutor at this summit. Second, the summit will be held on Russia’s, and hence the Syrian regime’s, terms without interference from the U.S. and the EU. 

The simple fact, however, is that Turkey, without the U.S. or the EU, does not have the clout to secure the best terms for the opposition. All it can do under this format is to try and convince the opposition to accept the terms dictated to it.

One also can’t disregard the fact that the regime and the Kurds may come to some understanding, prompted by Moscow, to overcome their differences and work out an accommodation regarding parts of northern Syria, which Ankara will not be pleased about but unable to do anything to prevent.

There are other potential issues that come to mind but even those mentioned here show that unfolding circumstances will ensure that Turkey’s own aims regarding Syria remain unachievable. 

It seems Ankara’s mistakes in Syria, based on its misreading of the situation there from the start, will continue to spawn negative results for Turkey for some time to come.