Turkey’s Upcoming Election and the Syria Conflict

4 May 2015

On 27 April, the International Crisis Group published the “Statement on a Syrian Policy Framework”. The Statement starts with an analysis of the conflict and then suggests a framework for a political deal based on the understanding that Bashar Assad cannot rule a post-war Syria and Iran’s influence in the Levant cannot be eliminated(*). Following are its key observations on the status quo:
“On its current trajectory, and with no military or diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon, the Syrian war will worsen…
“Whatever the parties to the conflict may think, no side is winning… the regime is losing ground outside its core areas… The mainstream opposition’s scorecard is similarly mixed…
“U.S.-led airstrikes have helped drive ISIS from some Kurdish areas east of Aleppo but have not fundamentally weakened its hold in eastern Syria…
“If Syria and its external stakeholders are to escape more years of war, rising costs, further destruction of the nation’s torn social fabric and worsening trans-border radicalization, a serious effort must be made, first and foremost, to define the parameters of an ultimate political solution…”

While the Statement describes US policy as the most conflicted and ambiguous, it draws attention to at least rhetorical clarity on one goal: the degrading and ultimate destruction of ISIS.

The Statement calls the Syria policies of regional actors and Russia as zero-sum logic. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar it makes the following observations:
“Unsure of the coherence and capacity of their proxies on the battle-field, they are less consistent and brazen in supporting them than Russia and Iran have been in propping up the regime, leaving commentators to speculate about the nature of their relationships with various armed groups, notably Islamists, including jihadis. Their divergent political sensitivities have made for awkward coexistence rather than a genuine alliance, further blurring the picture and weakening the opposition. They have failed to coordinate sufficiently with each other and the US, UK and France to incentivize effectiveness, moderation and cohesion among the opposition’s political and armed components. Predictably, jihadi groups have exploited the disarray.

“To tilt the balance and overcome their own limitations, the opposition’s regional backers have tried unsuccessfully to rally the U.S. to their side, calling for a no-fly zone and advanced weaponry that would show, above all, that the world’s pre-eminent military power was behind them. Pending an elusive breakthrough, their fallback posture is attrition. Thus the only intelligible goal of a hazy Saudi policy, at this stage, is to pin Iran down in a relatively distant, costly and unwinnable conflict that will exhaust its resources and popularity. That might make strategic sense were it not for a growing radicalization that is arguably threatening Saudi Arabia more than Iran, and a regional escalation that is costly and unwinnable for all…”

“… Turkey’s role is particularly important. A regional power sharing a long border with northern Syria and possessing significant leverage over armed factions operating there, it is central to shifting the intra-rebel balance and, ultimately, guaranteeing a political resolution. Its core interests must also be taken into account: a state able and willing to help contain groups currently operating in Turkey and protect the borders; return of the nearly two million Syrian refugees it hosts; and opening Kurdish-majority areas in the north, currently dominated by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, to equitable, pluralistic participation by all social and political forces so as to secure them as an inextricable part of Syria.”

I believe that this is a fair description of what some refer to as the “Sunni bloc”. Indeed, Turkey and Saudi Arabia differ on a number of regional issues. They hold conflicting opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey is an outspoken critic Egypt’s President Sisi whereas Saudi Arabia is its strongest supporter. Qatar’s relations with its Gulf neighbors were strained for similar reasons. Riyadh and Ankara also seem to differ on the Iran nuclear program.

Among the three Turkey has also been the most outspoken adversary of President Assad. It has persistently urged the US for a safe-haven within Syria to be enforced by a no-fly zone. Obviously this is not possible because a no-fly zone requires a UN Security Council resolution which Russia and probably China would oppose. And the West would not wish to enter into another open confrontation with Russia in addition to Ukraine.

In recent days there have been reports of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar ramping up their support to the Syrian rebels including the delivery of US-made TOW missiles. It is believed that increased military support to the rebels has contributed to recent advances against regime forces. However, it seems that Washington and its regional allies still have not resolved their differences over the definition of “moderate” fighters.

On 7 June Turkey will hold parliamentary elections. Regardless of who forms the new government this will provide an opportunity to review Syria policy. Turkey should seize this opportunity to free itself of the “Assad obsession” and support the launching of a political process through the formation of a transitional body as called for in the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Being referred to as a member of a sectarian bloc has only damaged Turkey’s international status.

On 21 April Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu had talks in Washington with Secretary Kerry. In remarks to the press before the meeting Mr. Çavuşoğlu stated that they would take up the situation in Yemen and Syria, Iraq, and the threat posed by terrorist organization Daesh. He also said that Turkey welcomes the tentative deal with Iran and expressed the hope that by the end of June there will be a comprehensive deal. Whatever he may have said later behind closed doors, for a change he did not mention Assad.

The Turkish government will probably continue to press its case against the Syrian President because his removal will be presented as vindication of Turkish government’s Syria policy, a desperately awaited victory though a pyrrhic one. Turkey’s external and internal security interests as well as its economic interests will best be served by a political solution. With two million Syrian refugees in the country and 30,000 ISIS fighters across the border in Iraq and Syria, the next Turkish government should not squander the opportunity to change course on Syria.

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(*) http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2015/middle-east-north-africa/statement-on-a-syrian-policy-framew

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