Turkey’s leadership split on Syria

Friday 02/10/2015
New course in response to changing internation­al environment

ISTANBUL - As international efforts to end the war in Syria gather steam, Turkey’s leadership is split on whether Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad should be al­lowed to stay in power for a transi­tional period as part of a solution to the crisis.
The rift comes when major inter­national players, including the Unit­ed States and Russia, are talking about Syria, with Assad’s fate one of the issues under discussion. Ger­many and the United Kingdom have indicated they would accept a solu­tion that included Assad remaining in power for a limited time. Iranian President Hassan Rohani, an Assad supporter, said he saw an emerging consensus for allowing the Syrian president to stay in office.
With a statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 24th, Turkey shifted more in line with the international trend. Erdogan signalled that Anka­ra had dropped its long-held insist­ence that Assad be removed from power as a condition to finding a way to end the long Syrian war. “A transitional period with Assad may be possible,” Erdogan said.
Only a few days later, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto­glu said Assad had no place in any transitional phase. Speaking Sep­tember 27th on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Davutoglu said Turkey had decided that there could be no solution in­volving Assad. “We are convinced that a transitional government led by Assad would not be transitional. It would turn permanent,” he said.
Even though Erdogan underlined that Assad, whom he called a “dic­tator”, must not be allowed to play a role in Syria’s long-term future, his statement was a remarkable change of course for a country that is among the fiercest critics of Assad and which has spent millions of dol­lars supporting the opposition both politically and militarily.
Murat Yetkin, a foreign policy col­umnist for the Radikal news web­site, agreed. For years, Ankara rejected any role for Assad in a Syrian transitional period, Yetkin wrote, adding, “There was nothing to talk about with Assad.”
There are signs that Erdogan’s new course is a response to a changing internation­al environment that, in acceptance of Russia’s beefed-up support for Assad and in view of the arrival of unprec­edented numbers of refugees in Eu­rope, is seeing a new drive to end the Syrian war. A continuation of Ankara’s uncom­promising “no” to any role for Assad could carry the risk of pushing Turkey to the mar­gins of any fresh diplomatic ef­fort.
The Turkish president spoke after returning from a one-day visit to Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, and after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the international community had to talk to many players, including Assad, about Syria.
Russia’s latest increase of mili­tary support for the Syrian leader and the arrival of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the European Union have boosted international efforts to end the war in Syria, in which more than 240,000 people have died and millions have fled their homes since fighting began in March 2011.
Erdogan’s turnaround was so un­expected that it caught other senior government officials by surprise. Only a few days before Erdogan’s statement, Foreign Minister Feri­dun Sinirlioglu reaffirmed the tra­ditional Turkish position by reject­ing Russia’s demand that the Syrian people should decide any role for Assad by saying that Syrians had al­ready made that choice.
Some observers say the contra­dictory statements by Erdogan and Davutoglu are signs of a growing rift. According to columnist Emre Kizilkaya of the Hurriyet newspa­per, Erdogan told a closed-door meeting with officials of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in early September that foreign policy mistakes had been made and that he had been misinformed about de­velopments.
Erdogan also reportedly said he received public blame for foreign policy missteps even though he had had no role in shaping the policy de­cisions in question.
Davutoglu, a former political science professor who served as Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser before becoming foreign minister in 2009 and prime minister when Erdogan moved to the presidential palace in 2014, is the architect of Turkey’s self-confident approach to regional questions in recent years.
Critics accuse Erdogan and Da­vutoglu of steering Turkey into growing isolation by support­ing Sunni groups, such as Muslim Brotherhood, and by alienating important countries such as Egypt and Israel. Seen from that angle, Erdogan’s new line on Assad can be read as the correction of a course that the president felt needed to change. The question is whether it is Erdogan or Davutoglu who will have the last word in deciding Tur­key’s position.
The prime minister was not the only player distancing himself from Erdogan’s new course. The Turkish president also angered the Syrian opposition in exile, which refuses to contem­plate peace talks while Assad is in power. The Syrian National Coali­tion (SNC), a Turkish-backed opposition umbrella group, said Assad must have no role in talks about Syr­ia’s future.
“Lenient posi­tions have been recently expressed towards a mass murderer whose crimes against hu­manity in Syria have long been proved,” the SNC said in a statement. “It is greatly astonishing how aggression and tyranny are regarded as pillars for [a solution in Syria], and we condemn the ongo­ing attempts to re-market the murderous Assad regime and its head.”