Syria: The world’s lost illusion

Syria: The world’s lost illusion

Dominique Moisi wrote a piece last week titled “Turkey’s Lost Illusions,” arguing Turkey has lost control of the Syrian crisis and history in the Middle East is not moving in the direction that Turkey would wish.

Well, it looks like this is the case for everyone and Syria has become everyone’s “lost illusion.” At the beginning, everyone thought Bashar al-Assad’s government was on the verge of collapse, and the only difference between states was the number of days they thought al-Assad would hang on. Today, however, the Syrian president wants to seek re-election next year. This shift has inevitably caused many U-turns in states’ policies vis-à-vis Syria.

Russia, which had been in polar opposition to the U.S. on its Syrian policy, has just signed an agreement with Washington to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Similarly, Iran had been supporting the al-Assad regime which has put it at odds with the West, but the U.N. secretary-general and U.N. peace envoy for Syria made it clear last week that they see Iran’s participation at the upcoming Geneva peace conference as natural, necessary and fruitful. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, on the other hand, said Iran would attend if invited. More interestingly, Washington welcomed this possibility, only pre-requesting that Iran formally accept the formation of a transitional government in Syria. So Iran could have a behind-the-scenes role to end the Syrian war by joining the U.S.-Russia efforts for a settlement.

The most turbulent country has been the U.S. There are many articles being published these days in U.S. newspapers, defining Obama’s Syrian policy as uncertain and messy. Since the very beginning of the war, there have been several U-turns in U.S. policy as well. Washington has been deeply divided over how to respond to the conflict. It has considered several options, ranging from military strikes to increased support to the rebels. And finally, Washington has cooperated with its chief rival, Russia. This is a radical shift not just with regard to allying with Russia. But also in terms of relying on al-Assad’s cooperation and saving his regime in exchange for his chemical arsenal, after two years of consistently declaring publicly that al-Assad had to go.

And Turkey is no exception to all this. Ankara has been harshly criticized by its Western allies for turning a blind eye to the activities of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fractions in Syria. However the Turkish military declared last week that it attacked the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, a radical Islamist group in Syria, along its border. This was the first time Turkey reported an attack on an Islamist group in Syria. Moreover, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is now much more open in its criticism of these groups. Both President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have very recently called these groups “terrorists” and denied any Turkish links with them.

Governments have caved in to the facts on the ground: Al-Assad is still a factor in the equation, not only among global powers, but also in his own country. Moreover, the U.S., Russia and Iran fear that radical Islamists will take over in Syria. And this fear supersedes their concerns about al-Assad. Hence leaders have surrendered and accepted the new parameters, which are al-Assad’s engagement in negotiations and a political transition including elements from the ruling Baath regime. And Turkey seems to have finally joined this camp as well. Turkey, however, could have made this shift long before which would not only make it a more integral part of the solution process, but also save it from being identified with the Syrian opposition and giving it a sectarian-based image.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American writer, once said: “In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.” We are skating on super-thin ice. So Turkey has to be super-fast in adjusting its tactics. Just a humble warning to keep in mind.