Following Erdogan’s turnabout in Syria, Turks wonder if the shift will work
Washington- Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tacit acceptance of a post-war role for Syrian leader Bashar Assad, Turks are wondering whether the political turnaround will serve to secure the country’s interests as efforts to rebuild Syria after almost seven years of war gather steam.
At a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on November 22, Erdogan said there was agreement between the three key players for a “transition to an inclusive, free, fair and transparent political process that will be carried out under the leadership and ownership of the Syrian people.”
But the Turkish president, one of the fiercest critics of Assad in recent years, did not call on the Syrian leader to step down, even though that demand was a key element of Ankara’s Syria policy for years. In Sochi, Erdogan sat down with Putin a day after Assad met the Russian leader, his most important international ally, in the same city. Erdogan’s new stance is likely to irk Syrian opposition groups that have enjoyed Turkish support in their fight against Assad.
Analysts say Turkey has changed its stance on Assad in order to achieve a goal that is now more important to Ankara than the fate of the Syrian president: preventing Kurds in Syria from building a largely autonomous or even independent homeland along the 900km border with Turkey.
On his return flight from Sochi, Erdogan told reporters travelling with him that contact between Ankara and Damascus was not impossible as things move forward. “What may be possible tomorrow depends on the conditions then,” Erdogan said, according to TRT state television. “As you know, the doors of politics remain open until the end.”
Mahir Unal, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), confirmed that Turkey no longer sees Assad’s resignation as a precondition for a political solution in Syria.
“It’s not within the logic of negotiations to have a precise position today on the political solution and on whether the transition will be with or without Assad,” Unal said. He added that Ankara did not want to see Assad continue as head of state, drawing a “red line” but at the same time implying that Turkey would accept some sort of role for the Syrian president.
Ending its diehard opposition to Assad became necessary for Turkey to win Russia’s support on the Kurdish issue after efforts to get US help failed, said Turkish political scientist Serdar Erdurmaz. “Turkey was eager for cooperation with the US” to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, Erdurmaz, head of the political science and foreign relations department at the Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, said. “But the US preferred to cooperate with the PYD,” he added, referring to the Democratic Union Party, the Syrian Kurdish party that holds sway over big parts of northern Syria with its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkey says PYD and YPG are Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla group that has been waging war against Ankara since 1984 and is seen as a terrorist group by many Western countries, including the US. Despite Turkish criticism, Washington says its cooperation with the PYD is indispensable to defeat ISIS. “That has pushed Turkey towards Russia,” Erdurmaz said. Erdogan’s increased cooperation with Putin has enabled Turkey to send troops into northern Syria to check the Kurds’ advance there.
The big question is whether Erdogan’s new partnership with Putin will guarantee that his government’s wishes are met when it comes to working out a political future for Syria. Erdogan said Putin told him that Assad regarded PYD and YPG “negatively” as well. The first test will arrive in the coming weeks, when a Syrian national dialogue congress between the Assad government and opposition groups is to be held in Sochi.
In a joint statement, Erdogan, Putin and Rohani called on opposition representatives “committed to the sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and non-fractional character of the Syrian state” to participate. Referring to the PYD and the YPG, Erdogan made clear that Turkey was not prepared to “be under the same roof with terror organisations.”
But Erdogan critics warn the Turkish president’s turnabout on Syria might result in failure. The joint statement’s call for the preservation of Syria’s integrity did not exclude autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, journalist Hasan Cemal wrote in a column for the Turkish news website T24. Syria’s Kurds continued to enjoy the support of the US, Russia and Iran, Cemal wrote. “Erdogan can shout all he wants, it won’t change a thing.”
Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper, also pointed out that Turkey is not the player that can make the rules with regards to Syria. “Russia and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, are calling the shots.”
But Erdurmaz, the political scientist, said Erdogan’s alliance with Russia and Iran is a merely tactical one. “Turkey does not rely on Russia,” he said, because Moscow’s policies in Syria could change quickly. Ankara’s immediate aim was to see Syria stabilised and to have the threat posed by the PYD removed from its southern border, Erdurmaz said. Once this goal was reached, the significance of Turkey’s alliance with Russia would decrease. “In the medium term, Turkey will improve relations with the West.”