TUR­KEY LEFT ON A PRE­CAR­I­OUS PERCH OVER SYRIA POL­ICY SHIFT

The National - News - - NEWS - ALEXAN­DER CHRISTIE-MILLER Anal­y­sis

When the West pon­dered in­ter­ven­tion in Syria’s civil war af­ter the As­sad regime’s al­leged chem­i­cal weapons at­tack in Ghouta, in Au­gust 2013, Tur­key was among the most vo­cal pro­po­nents of top­pling the Syr­ian dic­ta­tor.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, then prime min­is­ter, called for a Kosovo-style in­ter­ven­tion to top­ple Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad in pref­er­ence to the more lim­ited puni­tive strikes be­ing con­sid­ered by Wash­ing­ton.

“An oper­a­tion of one or two days will not be enough,” Mr Er­do­gan said at the time. “The goal should be to force the regime out.”

Five years on, Ankara’s po­si­tion on in­ter­ven­tion has changed sig­nif­i­cantly. Af­ter the most re­cent chem­i­cal at­tack in Douma, Tur­key’s for­eign min­istry noted merely that the tar­geted air strikes car­ried out by the US, UK and France at the week­end were an “ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse” to the regime’s atroc­ity.

The shift in rhetoric re­flects Ankara’s al­tered pri­or­i­ties in Syria, and the im­por­tance it at­taches to its emerg­ing part­ner­ship with Rus­sia, the As­sad regime’s chief backer, in achiev­ing its aims.

Whereas in the early years of the con­flict Tur­key’s main goal was the over­throw of Mr Al As­sad through in­ter­na­tional in­ter­ven­tion, it is now fo­cused more nar­rowly on thwart­ing the emer­gence of a Kur­dish au­tonomous re­gion in the north of the coun­try.

Tur­key’s re­cent mil­i­tary takeover of Afrin, the en­clave on its Syria bor­der that had been con­trolled by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), a Kur­dish-dom­i­nated group closely linked to Kur­dish sep­a­ratist rebels in Tur­key, was en­abled through the ac­qui­es­cence of Rus­sia.

Mean­while, Wash­ing­ton has blocked any fur­ther Turk­ish moves against SDF-con­trolled ter­ri­tory in the east of the coun­try, where US and Kur­dish forces are fight­ing to­gether against ISIS.

“[Tur­key’s] part­ner­ship with Rus­sia has proven to be rel­a­tively ef­fec­tive in ad­vanc­ing Turk­ish in­ter­ests in Syria — more so than its part­ner­ship with its Nato al­lies, in­clud­ing the US,” said Si­nan Ul­gen, chair­man of Is­tan­bul’s Cen­tre for Eco­nom­ics and For­eign Pol­icy Stud­ies.

As a long-time west­ern ally that is host to US forces, the lat­est strikes have put Tur­key in a del­i­cate po­si­tion.

While he has long styled him­self a stri­dent critic of As­sad regime atroc­i­ties, with a pub­lic im­age as a de­fender of Syria’s down­trod­den Sunni Mus­lim ma­jor­ity, Mr Er­do­gan also needs to dis­tance him­self from any west­ern ac­tion to pla­cate Moscow.

The seeds of Tur­key’s change were sown af­ter that first in­ter­na­tional out­cry sur­round­ing the regime’s al­leged chem­i­cal at­tack in Ghouta, when US pres­i­dent Barack Obama shied away from mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

In the ab­sence of west­ern ac­tion, Rus­sia and Iran be­came in­creas­ingly com­mit­ted in their sup­port of Mr Al As­sad, turn­ing the tide of the con­flict and even­tu­ally forc­ing Ankara to aban­don its vi­sion of craft­ing a post-As­sad Syria re­cep­tive to Turk­ish in­flu­ence.

Mean­while, in 2015 the break­down of peace talks be­tween the Turk­ish state and the sep­a­ratist Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK), led to the re­sump­tion of Tur­key’s own three-decade long Kur­dish in­sur­gency, caus­ing Ankara to har­den its stance against the PKK’s Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate which, with US air sup­port, had seized the north-east of the coun­try from ISIS.

Since then, Tur­key has sought to strengthen its po­si­tion re­gard­ing any fu­ture po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment in Syria by seiz­ing its own ter­ri­tory in two cam­paigns, Oper­a­tion Euphrates Shield launched against ISIS and Kur­dish groups in 2016, and Oper­a­tion Olive Branch, in which it seized Afrin this year.

Par­al­lel to this, Ankara is work­ing closely with Moscow and Tehran to bring about a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment to the con­flict, with its chief aim be­ing to pre­vent any kind of Kur­dish au­ton­omy be­ing en­shrined in a fu­ture Syria.

Af­ter an in­con­clu­sive sum­mit in the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi last Novem­ber, Mr Er­do­gan met Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Has­san Rouhani again on April 4 to dis­cuss the fu­ture of Syria.

Of­ten over­looked in this emerg­ing part­ner­ship is Moscow and Tehran’s de­pen­dence on Ankara to use its in­flu­ence to bring Sunni rebel groups in Syria to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

“We’ve moved past the point where we can call this trans­ac­tional,” says Aaron Stein, se­nior res­i­dent fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton. “Er­do­gan and Putin talk on the phone all the time and they need each other.

“Tur­key is in con­trol of all of north­ern Aleppo and their op­er­a­tions hap­pened be­cause the Rus­sians al­lowed them to. The Turks have a lot of lever­age over the Rus­sians, too. They need the Turks to set­tle the con­flict by bring­ing the rebel op­po­si­tion to the ta­ble.”

In this con­text, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s avoid­ance of any es­ca­lat­ing con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia will have been as much of a re­lief in Ankara as any­where else.

But with Tur­key perched ever more pre­car­i­ously be­tween its long-time west­ern al­lies and its new­found part­ner Moscow, it will have to chart a care­ful course as ten­sions be­tween the old Cold War ad­ver­saries con­tinue to rise.

The shift in rhetoric re­flects the im­por­tance Ankara at­taches to its part­ner­ship with Rus­sia

AP

From left, Iran’s Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, Tur­key’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and Rus­sia’s Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Ankara ear­lier this month

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