October 3, 2018
On September 9, 2018, the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States, members of the “Small Group on Syria” issued a statement. After repeating for the umpteenth time that there is no military solution to the conflict they called on the UN and Staffan de Mistura to convene, as quickly as possible, a credible, inclusive constitutional committee that will begin drafting a new Syrian constitution and laying the groundwork for free and fair UN-supervised elections in a safe and neutral environment in which all eligible Syrians – including those in the diaspora – have a right to participate. They urged Mr. Mistura to report back to the Security Council on his progress no later than October 31. The reference to “Syrians including those in the diaspora” covers primarily those in Syria’s neighbors, among them Turkey now home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
Firstly, the title “Small Group on Syria” is revealing. If nothing else, it underlines the loss of altitude of the regime change project from the heyday of ostentatious “Friends of the Syrian People” group meetings, including the one in Istanbul, when many wrongly believed that regime’s fall was imminent. Chairman’s conclusions of that meeting held on April 1, 2012 said that the Group welcomed the growing interest and participation of the countries which totaled 83 including the representatives from the United Nations, The League of Arab States, The European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the African Union.
Secondly, it seems that inability to move forward under the Geneva process has lead to the formation of two groups with different perspectives on Syria. Russia, Iran and Turkey have launched the Astana process and now there is the Small Group.
The Small Group wants to convene a “constitutional committee” but Russia has already circulated a draft Syrian constitution which, while underlining the country’s territorial integrity, says that “Syria consists of constituent parts.” The draft also refers to Kurdish cultural autonomy. In other words, while strongly backing the regime, Moscow does not wish to leave the Syrian Kurds solely in Washington’s hands.
Thirdly, while the chorus “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict” only reflects a general reluctance on the part the external powers to get further involved militarily in Syria with the exception of Turkey, they may be getting ready for a long-drawn-out political/diplomatic war, at Syrians’ expense of course, over the country’s future.
Fourthly, Russia, having changed the Syrian military landscape, is trying hard to launch a process of political transition under the Astana process in which it would be the principal actor.
Fifthly, the U.S. has made it clear that it will remain in Syria “until the enduring defeat of ISIS”. Idlib, however, seems to be a special case from Washington’s perspective. Moreover, Washington wishes the reinvigoration of the political process and the removal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. Thus, with Iraq and Syria no longer their former selves, Iran has become the principal target for the U.S., Israel and their Gulf allies.
And lastly, tensions between Moscow and Washington are running high.
To sum up, Syria continues to face an uncertain future.
In this broad picture, Turkey’s trajectory in Syria is unique. Turkey’ ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) saw the Arab spring as a historic opportunity to play a central role in reshaping the Middle East. Through this role, Turkey was to become region’s leading nation, hence a global player. The theoreticians of this approach banked heavily on Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in countries where regimes were likely to fall. The theory had multiple deficiencies and only one would suffice explain why it stood no chance: Arab countries would never subscribe to a neo-Ottoman regional order. A democratic Turkey inspiring peoples and leading by example was another story.
Ankara started off as the most outspoken member of the Friends of the Syrian People Group. Today, it is a member of the Astana Group with Russia and Iran. Its perspective for Syria’s future is not clear except the safeguarding of Syria’s territorial integrity, which it undermined with its Western allies, and the defeat of the PYD/YPG. Since then, however, relations with those allies have suffered serious setbacks.
Turkey is now engaged in an effort to repair its relations with the E.U. This is the right policy. However, the overarching problem of chemistry resulting from Turkey’s exiting the democratic path will continue to impact the relationship and progress, if any, would have limits.
During her joint press conference in Berlin with President Erdogan, Chancellor Merkel said that the two leaders were envisaging a four-party summit meeting on Syria with Russia and France. Based on her statement, one may assume that Ankara may now try emerging as the country to bridge differences between the Astana process and the Small Group. Had Ankara resisted the temptation of getting involved in the Syrian conflict it might have been a good candidate for such a mission at a more favorable international juncture. But after so many foreign policy zigzags, ups and downs in relations with Russia and the U.S. and Idlib looming, this would be easier said than done.