What does Ankara want in Syria?

If we presume its existence, the immediate conclusion is that at best, the answer is now out of date, defeated by the rapidly changing realities on the ground. It exposes serious shortcomings and a lack of official flexibility and realism.

There seem to be two main elements that have shaped the current position: A future of Syria without President Bashar al-Assad and the prevention of a “Kurdish belt” along the Turkish-Syrian border, which until recently included helping al-Nusra which, Ankara hoped, would be instrumental in establishing a “Sunni-based opposition buffer zone” — a base to bring down the regime in Damascus.

The reality today is clashing severely with this position.

Furthermore, the recent downing incident added to the problems developing in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s relations with Russia, which seen from today’s perspective are far broader than only the severe differences on Syria. There are earlier moves by Moscow, such as the Georgian crisis and the annexation of Crimea. Ankara’s increased dependency on Russian energy, with the addition of awarding the contract for Turkey’s nuclear plant to Moscow, and its hallucination that existed until recently of becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) display a series of erratic decisions on the part of Turkey.

As a result, Turkey — which seems to have wasted opportunities to become a key player in deconflicting the Syrian theater — is emerging as the most swiftly weakening player in the current multi-dimensional chess game.

Some weeks ago, Yasar Yakıs, a former minister of foreign affairs and a diplomat who knows the fabric of the Middle East very well, described the new dynamics of the Vienna talks, asking Turkey to pursue “constructive ambiguity”:

“There is no sign that Iran and Russia have given up their position that Assad should not be barred from running in the presidential election. Neither have Turkey and Saudi Arabia given up their position on not letting Assad run in the election. The other countries do not have a strong position like these four countries. Insistence on this issue could hamper the cease-fire and the political dialogue.”

“The addition of Iran to the countries participating in the Vienna process will tilt the balance against the combined Turkish-Saudi position. Turkey is likely to face more difficult dilemmas than many other participating countries because its options are more limited than the others. The importance of Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis is widely acknowledged but if Turkey overplays its cards, its isolation in the Syrian crisis may continue to grow.”

Yakıs also underlined how Syria’s southern neighbor, which very successfully prevented Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) fanatics from crossing its borders towards the west, has adopted to the new reality to avoid tension: “Jordan has made a step to adjust its Syrian policy to the realities on the ground after Russia stepped in. [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov announced that the two countries had decided to establish a coordination center in Jordan to monitor the cooperation between them.”

Yakıs believes that a similar step is very hard between Russia and Turkey but I would argue that the downing of the plane should push Ankara and Moscow to brush aside their sharp differences and do the same. Regarding the Kurdophobia that blurs Ankara’s vision and operates as another counter-dynamic, Yakıs points out that Turkey should wake up to a new common ground taking shape, based on the role of the Syrian pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, involving Russia:

“Turkey is the only country that considers the YPG a terrorist organization. … Russia and Western countries regard the Syrian Kurds as a reliable partner. Turkey has to adjust its policy to the realities on the ground instead of expecting all the other countries to change their stance and come closer to Turkey’s position.”

Many outsiders see only an obsession with Assad when they see the Turkish position today. As long as its strategy is questioned and a more rational and realistic view does not take hold, the discord with the international community — including Jordan and Lebanon — will deepen.


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