Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Room for accommodation?

Reports are circulating of an upcoming meeting between the Turkish and Syrian presidents, but the magnitude of their differences makes it hard to believe it will take place, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

While Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying that a consensus is emerging between Russia and Turkey over the Syrian crisis that will benefit both states, media close to the Syrian regime are talking about an impending meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

 It has been reported that preparations for the meeting, to be held under Russian auspices, are proceeding apace.

The leaks coincide with a statement from Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Turkey is seeking to normalise ties with Egypt and mend its relationship with Syria. “There will be normalisation with Egypt and Syria,” Yildirim said. “Turkey has begun a serious attempt to normalise relations.”

Yildirim offered no further details or a timetable for the initiative, but the announcement nevertheless caught the attention of many parties with an interest in Syria. If Erdogan and Al-Assad do improve their relations, this could usher in many fundamental changes that could upset the military and political balance in the region.

The leaks and brief statements from the Russians and Turks come after the restoration of Russian-Turkish relations following the reconciliation between the two countries’ leaders on 9 August and the unexpected Turkish military intervention in Syria.

But the leaks, which the Syrian regime may have had a hand in spreading, have been shown to be unfounded. Turkish officials in contact with the Syrian opposition have unequivocally denied any mediation, Russian or Iranian, between Erdogan and Al-Assad, saying that the Turks “were used to hearing such rumours”. One Turkish source even described them as “nonsense.”

The Turkish denials seem realistic as Turkey’s problems with the Syrian regime are not merely differences of opinion or tactical disagreements over issues that can be resolved with a summit or face-to-face meeting. Instead, they represent fundamental divides that are almost matters of life or death for Turkey.

A rapprochement with the Syrian regime and approval for the perpetuation of the Al-Assad regime would automatically mean acquiescing in continued Iranian hegemony in Syria and the abandonment of Turkey’s own regional role in favour of Tehran.

Nevertheless, the Syrian opposition is wary of what Turkey might do in order to bring about reconciliation. For the time being, there are two challenges for Turkey – settling its foreign-relations problems and dealing with the Syrian Kurds who want to establish an autonomous federal region in northern Syria – both of which the opposition is wary about.

According to Monzer Akbik, spokesman for the Syrian opposition Ghad current, “the restoration of ties between Erdogan and Al-Assad is now in the realms of possibility, having been impossible only a short time ago. The reason is the Kurdish issue.”

 “The Syrian Democratic Forces led by Kurds with the Democratic Union Party have taken control of large areas of Syria west of the Euphrates River, which Turkey sees as a threat to its national security. Turkey needs Russian cooperation, which means it may have to pay the political price of moderating its position on Al-Assad,” he added.

“The Turkish pivot is expected to be sold as an initiative for peace with Syria, taking advantage of Turkey’s strong relations with part of the Syrian political and military opposition. The latter will be in a tough spot when a deal is offered that falls short of its aspirations, though it’s too early to say that Turkey will completely abandon the opposition.”

 “The Iranian role in Syria is destructive and hostile to the Syrian people. It would be better for Turkey to pull Iran towards different policies by withdrawing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its militias from Syria, instead of Iran pulling Turkey to accept its nefarious role in Syria,” Akbik said.

At the same time, Turkey has affirmed on more than one occasion that its stance “was and remains clear.” For Turkey, no transitional political process can succeed with Al-Assad still in power in Syria, and a few weeks ago the Turkish prime minister even said that “relations with Syria will be restored after Al-Assad’s departure from power and not while he is still present.”

The issue that prompted talk of renewed ties between Turkey and Syria was that of the separatist Kurds in northern Syria and represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) who have bitten off Syrian territory village by village and town by town to link “Kurdish cantons” across the country with the goal of bringing them together in an autonomous federal region.

Turkey has been forced to take action to prevent this Kurdish entity from taking shape because it will sit all along its southern border. It would be almost directly subordinate to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the US.

Many people believe that Russia has agreed to let Turkey have what it wants, clipping the wings of the separatist Syrian Kurds, in exchange for Turkey moderating its position on the Syrian regime and accepting Al-Assad’s role in the transitional stage at least.

Such observers say that in principle Turkey could accept a deal of this sort, especially since its national interests take priority over its support for the Syrian opposition.

But events on the ground suggest this is not what will happen. Operation Euphrates Shield, which Turkey launched a week ago, has three objectives. The first is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish region extending from Iraq to the Mediterranean, and this objective has largely been achieved.

Kurdish People’s Protection Units under the PYD were forced to retreat east of the Euphrates River and their movements brought to a halt as they succumbed to the Turkish threat and US demands.

The second objective is to clear the Syrian side of the Turkish border from any trace of the Islamic State (IS) group, a mission assumed by the Turkish army and factions of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army. The third objective is to establish a safe zone under the control of the Turkish-supported Syrian opposition. Movements on the ground suggest that the zone could extend 25 km into Syria.

Syrian opposition figure Yehia Al-Aridi rules out any rapprochement with the Syrian regime, believing that the regime has no control over the Kurdish issue and making Turkey reluctant to rely on its assistance.

The Russian-Turkish relationship was much more important than the Al-Assad regime, Al-Aridi said, which was a minor detail in comparison. Turkey and Russia have major interests over which they will negotiate without Turkey being forced to reinstate ties with Al-Assad.

Al-Aridi said that if Iran was forced to choose between friendly ties with Turkey or with Al-Assad, it would choose the former, especially since Iran’s Kurdish headache mirrors that of Turkey.

Observers agree that Euphrates Shield has made Turkey the second-biggest player in Syria after Russia. Although Ankara is acting without the approval of the Syrian regime, neither Russia nor Iran criticised Turkey’s actions, and Russia has stopped viewing Turkey as a “non-constructive” force in Syria.

Turkey has met this softer line by easing its own stance on Al-Assad, whose ouster it has demanded for the last five years. This most likely indicates an all-round agreement to shuffle roles among the international and regional powers involved in Syria.

Turkey sees the Kurds as a major threat, and a Kurdish entity along the northern Syrian border would vex it for decades. This could lead Turkey to accept Al-Assad’s presence in the transitional period, even if it knows that the Syrian regime is unreliable.

For decades, the Syrian regime backed Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK, and allowed him to train Kurdish fighters in Syria. It also supported the PYD and has cooperated with it throughout the last five years, coordinating on military and political matters.

Turkey knows that the Syrian regime’s ties to Iran are unbreakable and not subject to influence. Any rapprochement with the Syrian regime would mean recognising Iran’s influence in Syria and abandoning a role for Turkey in the Middle East.

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