Turkey’s leadership split on Syria
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.”