Turkish analysts unconvinced by Erdoğan's U-turn over Syria

WASHINGTON - Following Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Er­doğan’s tacit acceptance of a post-war role for Syr­ian leader Bashar al-Assad, Turks are wondering whether the political turnaround will serve to secure the country’s interests as ef­forts to rebuild Syria after almost seven years of war gather steam.

At a summit with Russian Presi­dent Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Nov. 22, Erdoğan said there was agreement between the three key players for a “transition to an inclusive, free, fair and transparent political process that will be carried out under the leadership and own­ership of the Syrian people”.

But the Turkish president, one of the fiercest critics of Assad in recent years, did not call on the Syrian leader to step down, even though that demand has been a key element of Ankara’s Syria policy for years. In Sochi, Erdoğan sat down with Pu­tin a day after Assad met the Rus­sian leader, his most important international ally, in the same city. Erdoğan’s new stance is likely to irk Syrian opposition groups that have so far enjoyed Turkish support in their fight against Assad.

Analysts say Turkey has changed its stance on Assad in order to achieve a goal that is now more important to Ankara than the fate of the Syrian president: preventing Kurds in Syria from building a large­ly autonomous or even independ­ent homeland along the 900km border with Turkey.

On his return flight from Sochi, Erdoğan told reporters travelling with him that contact between Ankara and Damascus was not im­possible as things move forward. “What may be possible tomorrow depends on the conditions then,” Erdoğan said, according to TRT state television. “As you know, the doors of politics remain open until the end.”

Mahir Ünal, a spokesman for Er­doğan’s ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP), confirmed that Turkey no longer sees Assad’s resignation as a precondition for a political solution in Syria.

“It’s not within the logic of negotiations to have a precise position today on the political solution and on whether the transition will be with or with­out Assad,” Ünal said, adding that Ankara did not want to see As­sad continue as head of state, draw­ing a “red line” but at the same time implying that Turkey would accept some sort of role for the Syrian president.

Ending its die-hard opposition to Assad has become necessary for Tur­key to win Russian support on the Kurdish issue after efforts to get U.S. help failed, said Turkish political scientist Serdar Erdurmaz.

“Tur­key was eager for cooperation with the U.S.” to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, said Erdurmaz, who is head of the political science and foreign relations department at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. “But the U.S. preferred to cooperate with the PYD,” he added, referring to the Democratic Union Party, the Syrian Kurdish party that holds sway over big parts of northern Syria through its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey says the PYD and YPG are Syr­ian affiliates of the Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), a guerrilla group that has been waging war against Ankara since 1984 and is seen as a terrorist group by many Western countries, including the U.S. De­spite Turkish criticism, Washington says its cooperation with the PYD is indispensable to defeat ISIS. “That has pushed Turkey towards Rus­sia,” Erdurmaz said. Erdoğan’s in­creased cooperation with Putin has enabled Turkey to send troops into northern Syria to check the Kurds’ advance there.

The big question is whether Erdoğan’s new partnership with Putin will guarantee that his gov­ernment’s wishes are met when it comes to working out a political future for Syria. Erdoğan has said that Putin told him Assad regarded PYD and YPG “negatively” as well. The first test will arrive in the coming weeks, when a Syrian national dia­logue congress between the Assad government and opposition groups is to be held in Sochi.

In a joint statement, Erdoğan, Pu­tin and Rouhani called on opposition representatives “committed to the sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and non-frac­tional character of the Syrian state” to participate. Referring to the PYD and the YPG, Erdoğan made clear that Turkey was not prepared to “be under the same roof with terror organisations”.

But Erdoğan critics warn that the Turkish president’s turnabout on Syria might result in failure. The joint statement’s call for the pres­ervation of Syria’s territorial integrity did not exclude autonomy for the Syr­ian Kurds, journalist Hasan Cemal wrote in a column for the Turkish news website T24. Syria’s Kurds continued to enjoy the support of the U.S., Russia and Iran, Cemal wrote. “Erdogan can shout all he wants, it won’t change a thing.”

Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the Hürriyet newspaper, also pointed out that Turkey is not a player that can make the rules with re­gards to Syria. “Russia and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, are call­ing the shots.”

But Erdurmaz said that Erdogan’s alliance with Russia and Iran was a merely tactical one. “Turkey does not rely on Rus­sia,” he said, because Moscow’s pol­icies in Syria could change quickly. Ankara’s immediate aim was to see Syria stabilised and to have the threat posed by the PYD removed from its southern border, Erdurmaz said. Once this goal was reached, the significance of Turkey’s alliance with Russia would decrease. “In the medium term, Turkey will improve relations with the West.”

Thomas Seibert is a reporter with the Arab Weekly, where this column is originally published.

This piece, republished with permission, first appeared at The Arab Weekly .