The Syrian endgame
As world powers begin to imagine a post-war Syria, Turkey jockeys
for a prominent role
To use a poker term: Turkey has gone all in on Syria. Last week, it hosted a Summit in Istanbul bringing together the leaders of Russia, France, Germany, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Over the past month and a half, Turkey has taken the lead in Idlib in an attempt prevent another massacre and manage a non-violent drawdown of opposition forces. So far, its strategy seems to be working. Turkey appears to be feeling confident enough now that authorities have begun to signal that it may be time for Syrian refugees to start heading home. Are things as promising as they appear?
►Let’s look f rst at th s Summ t. Was t s gn f cant?
It is significant in a variety of ways. To begin, it brought together two major EU leaders, the Russian leader and Turkey’s president. They seem to be the major actors concerned with a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict while preserving its territorial integrity. With the Americans operating east of the Euphrates and cooperating with the YPG as their principal ally, there is some question as to what kind of territorial integrity the U.S. may have in mind. Certainly, other actors do not sufficiently trust the intentions of the U.S. But if you ask what sort of outcome this Summit produced, it is difficult to point to a concrete outcome. The agreement appears to have centered on the idea that a constitutional committee should be set up before the end of the year that will start working on a new Syrian constitution. Is this going to be achieved? We don’t know. We also don’t know if it is going to be possible for such a committee to agree on a text that is acceptable to the various sides in the conflict. But at least the effort is in the right direction. There has to be a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
One of the major questions one may immediately ask is whether the agreement will provide a way for Assad to bow out of Syrian politics peacefully. At the moment, it seems that he is not ready to go. It also seems that the Russians are not necessarily ready to let him go. But Russia’s primary motivation is to make sure that there is a friendly regime in Syria. It wants to retain the military position it has secured. If the Russians are assured that their presence in Syria will be recognized, it might be possible to persuade them that the constitutional arrangement should provide a way through which Assad can be eased out of power.
As time goes on, there will be other meetings that may bring these four leaders together. They may continue to work together to find some kind of a solution to the Syrian conflict because, in the end, its continuation is not to the good of anyone. Russia, the most militarily engaged party, has its own domestic problems - economic and political. So, even for it, to remain engaged in a conflict that is clearly quite costly is not desirable.
Just as significant as those who attended the Summit in Istanbul is those who didn’t. The U.S. and Iran were excluded. How do you read this?
I think it is clearly quite significant. Although the Russians and the Iranians seem to be cooperating in Syria, Russia does not have an interest in enhancing Iranian influence. There seems to be also an understanding in Germany, France and Turkey that Iranian influence in Syria should not expand because the Iranians are not just present in Syria; rather they pose a challenge to the entire Middle East order. Furthermore, it’s becoming more and more questionable as to whether Saudi Arabia can contain Iran. It has to put its own house in order first. Nor does the U.S., which wasn’t at the Summit, have an interest in the expansion of Iranian influence. Unfortunately, so far, it has chosen to work with its own proxy force, the YPG, a mainly Kurdish terror organization that is an extension of the PKK.
►Has there been any progress on that front n terms of U.S.-Turkey cooperat on?
Turkey’s approach has been better received by the Summit in Istanbul than the American way of doing things. Shortly afterwards, Turkey has started firing howitzers on YPG units east of the Euphrates, which some have suggested is an affront to the U.S. encouraged by the Summit. My interpretation is somewhat different. I do not think that Turkey would do this without warning the Americans first. I think the Americans are coming to appreciate that to try to exclude Turkey from what’s happening in Syria and Iraq is unrealistic. A previously mentioned possibility may have developed into a tacit agreement that there should be a cordon sanitaire of about 30 to 40km into Syria away from the Turkish border where the YPG would not be allowed to operate. Turkey and the U.S. may have arrived at an understanding that if the YPG tries to exceed the limits, Turkey will respond. My hunch is that the Americans were advised by the Turkish government that they would be firing these Howitzers at YPG positions. By all indications, we have not had a strong reaction from the American side, which may be a way of telling the YPG not to create trouble and to move away from the Turkish border. So, it seems Turkey and the United States may be beginning to cooperate rather than compete east of the Euphrates. I suspect that this cooperation will be enhanced because it ensures that there will be no need for other forces like the Iranians or Russians to come into the area.
►Lastly, we talked last week about a poss ble l ght at the end of Turkey’s dark geopol t cal tunnel. How prom s ng s Syr a look ng?
There seems to be a growing recognition and acceptance of the fact that Turkey must be one of the key actors in bringing about a solution. Turkey’s claim to be a legitimate partner in dealing with problems of the region has been bolstered. And as I have mentioned before, a solution in Syria should be political, not military. Events seem to be moving in a direction that is in line with Turkey’s interests and expectations. Of course, what we don’t yet know is the extent of the role Turkey will play and the cost this will bring to Turkey because, in the end, Turkey does not have the means to bear all the cost of bringing peace to this area by itself.