Though he was not present, the shadow of Syrian President Bashar Assad loomed large over last week’s summit between the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran.
For while Turkey backs armed groups sworn to overthrow Assad, Ankara has put great effort into cultivating relations with the Syrian president’s main backers, Russia and Iran. So in their many meetings on Syria, Turkey speaks with Assad, though indirectly, through Russia or Iran.
At the Tehran summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushed for a ceasefire to stop the Syrian government’s likely offensive against the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave left in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected the proposal. Had Assad been present at the meeting, his response would have been no different.
Having failed to ward off the onslaught on Idlib diplomatically, Turkey now faces a complex problem for its foreign policy. Apart from its humanitarian costs, Turkey is extremely alarmed about the fate of the various armed groups in Idlib.
Turkey needs the cooperation of the many armed groups in Idlib, as it does not have good relations with the Syrian government or the Kurds who control much of northeastern Syria.
But Turkey’s cooperation with the myriad of mainly jihadist armed groups generates two major costs.
Firstly, Turkey is itself becoming subject to security risks stemming from the presence of many armed groups in the region. These groups are likely to destabilise Turkey too.
Secondly, Turkey is perceived globally as a protector of terrorist groups.
Probably to escape from the second risk, Turkey has recently designated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front and linked to al Qaeda, as a terrorist group. But Turkey cannot give up cooperating with the various armed groups in Syria without giving up on its ambitious goal of regime change.
The Syrian government has however survived and, for Turkey, the Kurdish problem has become more complicated.
Now that regime change in Syria is no longer possible, Ankara has come up with a Plan B to establish long-term influence on Syria by employing various armed groups in the country.
Another part of Turkey’s strategy is to win hearts and minds in the areas of northern Syria it controls, by, for example, establishing schools. It is not clear though whether Turkey has the soft-power capability to create a pro-Turkish demography in Syria.
Such methods not only take a long time to pay off, but are very costly too. The financial costs have played a large role in weighing down the economies of those countries most heavily embroiled in Syria; Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Turkey’s plan for long-term influence in Syria is likely to be a source of concern for Russia and Iran and could prove more costly for Ankara in the future.
Turkey would do better to observe the United States’ pragmatic and realistic stance towards Syria as it looks to the post-war future. It will be Russia and Iran that are most influential in post-war Syria, the United States is focusing on its traditional agenda of supporting the Kurds, the only group that serves U.S. interests. Despite frequent Turkish warnings, the United States continues to back and arm the Kurds; a U.S. general recently met a Syrian Kurdish leader on Turkey’s most wanted list.
U.S. backing for the Kurds has also been consistent in neighbouring Iraq. Turkey should draw a lesson from this. Outside countries need alliances with large ethnic, political or sectarian groups to generate influence in other states. Such a strategy is never possible through small, divided communities or warrior groups.