Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Rush to Assad

After years of demanding the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, Turkey’s Erdogan appears to be undertaking one of his signature U-turns, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since becoming Turkey’s 65th prime minister, Binali Yildirim has been sending out messages to whom it may concern, abroad above all, to the effect that Ankara is now taking steps to mend fences, especially with neighbours, and in particular neighbours that share the same religious values and historical and cultural bonds. Naturally, in view of the authoritarian nature of Turkey’s government, the moves are directed and orchestrated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But often he prefers to stay in the background when it comes to new policy shifts and U-turns, so as not to draw further attention to his contradictory attitudes and conflicting stances. He has already built up a reputation for impetuous remarks and policies that backfired and forced him to backtrack. The most recent instances are the reconciliations with Israel and Russia after an angry freeze and the feebly justified compromises and/or grudging apologies he was ultimately forced to make after all those vilifying fusillades and shows of courageous steadfastness. Evidently, the time has now come to make up with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Erdogan’s former buddy turned enemy.

With Syria, which has become such a central and pressing issue for Turkey, the Anatolian decision-maker has awoken to how greatly he miscalculated. The destructive fallout of his policies are felt everywhere in Turkey and in all facets of life. But particularly hard hit is southeast Anatolia which, in less than a week, has been struck by four bomb attacks killing dozens of policemen and civilians in the context of military confrontations against the secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). So he has begun to bend before the onslaught of the waves, deeply disappointed by Al-Assad who, instead of toppling within the space three months as Erdogan had predicted all those many years ago, has stubbornly managed to remain on his Baathist throne for another six years with no sign in sight of a forced or voluntary abdication.

Still, some staging and role distribution was needed so that his policy swing would not come as too much of a shock. Thus, a first appearance was made by Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş who, in a recent meeting with a group of journalists, academics and heads of research centres in Ankara, described Ankara’s policy towards Syria as “a source of many sufferings for Turkey today”. “No country, us included, has been able to produce a valid policy for a solution in Syria… I wish a valid perspective for peace could have been developed before. God willing, a solution will be found soon that the people of Syria can accept, not by imposition from outside. There is currently such a process going on, and at this point relations with Russia are important… I don’t think Russia would tie its policies to a single individual. I believe time has come to end the proxy wars. God willing, we will find a solution,” he said.

The stage was set, but the next step exceeded expectations. In fact, it marked a major departure from the Syrian policy that Ankara has applied for six years. Prime Minister Yildirim, addressing a number of journalists and foreign press representatives Saturday, stated that his government would not object to a role for the Syrian president in the interim leadership in Damascus. He added that his government plans to take a more active role in addressing the conflict in Syria in the next six months, which signifies that Turkey does not want to add another year to the age of the Syrian civil war.

True, Yildirim was quick to add that Al-Assad could play no part in Syria’s future. However, many observers read this as primarily a face-saving device. The compromise was made and now there was no choice but to follow through. As for the motive behind this shift, it evidently stems from changes in realities on the ground in Syria that have caused the spectre of a “Kurdish state” to loom, in Ankara’s eyes, more ominously than ever. Accordingly, Yildirim stressed the need to prevent Syria from being divided along any ethnic lines. “For Turkey this is crucial,” he said.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara claims is an extension of the PKK, have made remarkable advances in northern Syria. However, in a remarkable precedent, Damascus launched airstrikes against Kurdish areas in northern Syria, a move cheered by Ankara, which urged Al-Assad to do more of the same. It appears that Al-Assad has awoken to the threat of territorial partition on the basis of ethnic divides. One imagines that Ankara also applauded the Syrian army statement justifying the bombardment of the Kurdish areas as it linked the Kurdish militias in Syria to the PKK. Apart from its concerns over a possible independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria, Ankara fears that the gains of the US-supported YPG will embolden the PKK in Anatolia, which resumed its militant activities after the ceasefire broke down in July last year.

At the same time, in another of the remarkable ironies that have emanated from the Turkish capital, rumours speak to the effect that Ankara has expressed its willingness to support Damascus in its fight against the Syrian Kurds. Lending weight to such rumours is the sudden visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Tehran, Al-Assad’s close ally. His counterpart, Javad Zarif, had only just left Turkey two days earlier.

Still, the raids did not prevent the YPG from gaining more ground. On Sunday, they announced that they had seized control of vital points in Hasaka, a sign of their determination to hold on to their gains and to continue to their push towards ISIS-controlled Jarablus on the border with Turkey.

Then came the bombing of a wedding party in a predominantly Kurdish popular neighbourhood in Gaziantep, killing up to 50 and wounding more than a hundred others. The horrifying tragedy that occurred on 20 August in that southern Anatolian town near the border with Syria has raised many questions as to why this attack happened just as developments were quickening in order to prevent Kurdish advances in northern Syria. What messages were meant to be conveyed via that suicide bomber who was reported to have been only 14 years old and whose explosives belt may have been detonated by remote control?

Erdogan, himself, mentioned this possibility, although he did not offer an explanation for that amazing coincidence between his government’s rush towards Al-Assad’s Syria and that heinous attack that was subject to an immediate media ban.

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