Turkish Foreign Policy Must Restore Its Republican Settings

October 19, 2021

Afghanistan developments could only divert Turkey’s attention from Syria for a while. With the meeting on September 29 between Presidents Putin and Erdogan, and the latter’s comments signaling another  operation against the PYD/YPG, we are back to Idlib.

Since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict there have been three major challenges before a political settlement:

•          Breaking the deadlock over President Assad’s future;

•          Persuading the external/regional backers of Damascus and the opposition to give their support not only in words but also in deeds to a Syrian-owned political transition; and,

•          Securing a broad-based agreement on who is a “terrorist” and who is a “moderate”.

After the Russia’s intervention which reversed the military picture, Syrian President’s future has become less of an issue. It is now generally accepted that he will remain in power because there is no better alternative. King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Assad had their first call in a decade. In September, at a meeting of energy ministers, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon reportedly set a roadmap to deliver Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria. Improvement in Syria’s relations with Gulf States is more likely than before.

The other two obstacles are still on the agenda, but in reverse order. Particularly in Idlib, separating the “terrorists” from the “moderate opposition” is now the number one challenge. In fact, with conflicting interests and murky relationships in Syria’s proxy war, separating the two has always been a huge problem.

In August 2018, this is what Foreign Minister Lavrov told journalists at his joint news conference with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in Moscow:

 “…There are several tens of thousands of militants from the so-called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra group, who are trying to control this entire territory and hamper the efforts, in particular, undertaken by Turkey to separate healthy opposition from terrorist groups… But when the de-escalation zone was created in Idlib, no one suggested to use it to ensure that terrorists, primarily from Jabhat al-Nusra, could use civilians as a human shield. Moreover, they are not just sitting there. They use it to carry out raids and shell the positions of the Syrian army…”

And, Minister Çavuşoğlu said:

“A military solution there will cause catastrophe, not only for the Idlib region but for the future of Syria. It will cause catastrophe and the clashes which may last a long time. Separating the civilians from the combatants in Idlib is important for everyone, but a solution through force would lead to a new wave of refugees and a humanitarian catastrophe. A solution by force in Idlib would undermine the trust between Russia and Turkey as well as the trust of the cease-fire participants. It is necessary to work in the Astana format on the cease-fire, it is necessary to work on promoting the political process…”

It has been three years since, and little has changed.

Though answers are not readily available, the following questions might be relevant to understanding the Idlib conundrum:

•          Was sending all the “militants” from the three de-escalation zones in Eastern Ghouta, Homs, Daraa to the Idlib de-escalation zone on Turkey’s border with Syria part of a bigger plan under the May 4, 2017, Astana Agreement?

•          If the “militants” were to leave Idlib, where would they go?

•          And above everything else, is there any hope of separating the “healthy opposition” from the “militants”?

The following is from the August 8, 2014, Thomas L. Friedman  interview with President Obama:

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. ‘This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”

“Even now, the president said, the administration has difficulty finding, training, and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

At this point in the Syrian conflict, it is clear that separating the “healthy opposition” from the “terrorists” as foreseen in the Astana Agreement is mission impossible. Seven years after President Obama’s comments, one may even say that there is no longer any moderate opposition left on the battlefield.

With the turning of the tide in his favor, President Assad would like to declare victory over what he calls the terrorist groups so that he can turn to political transition including the PYD/YPG question preferably from a position of strength.

Ankara, with thousands of troops in Syria worries about their safety as well as the prospect of yet another refugee wave including thousands of militants entering the country. Thus, it opposes a military solution to the Idlib problem.

Russia, the principal actor in Syria, has changed the course of the war. Having criticized the US for its failed external interventions, it seems anxious to prove its peace-making capacity as an investment in Russia’s global standing. It does not wish a massacre in Idlib to cast a dark shadow over Syria’s political transition. And, Russia has a strategic interest in Ankara’s moving further away from Washington. However, President Putin will not give his Turkish counterpart a free hand in northern Syria.

As for Washington, its principal objectives seem to be preventing Russia’s writing a different military intervention story and maintaining a foothold in Syria. America’s long-term plans for Syria are likely to become clearer if and when the political process is energized. That will also define, to a large measure, the future of Washington’s relations with Ankara.

And there is Israel and Iran with conflicting expectations. The former wishes to see a weakened, fragmented Syria. The latter has different ideas.

Unfortunately, Idlib is only one of Turkey’s many self-inflicted headaches. The bigger, overarching problem is the combination of our democratic decline, downward economic spiral, and a foreign policy which has lost its way.

A country’s foreign policy is shaped by its identity, sense of belonging, world outlook and geographic location. This last one is a constant; others are subject to evolution, change and definition/redefinition within the limits of reason. In today’s polarized Turkey, we do not have consensus on any of the first three. In countries enjoying such consensus, the task of governments is to merge these with national power into policies designed to maximize national interest. It is imperative even for major countries that the conformity of these policies to international law and rules of good conduct can be reasonably defended. All of this requires realism, calm, poise, prudence, consistency, and determination. A sound foreign policy’s worst enemies are rashness and bravado as we have bitterly come to learn.

When reference is made to Turkey’s geographic location the chosen adjective is invariably “strategic” much to the liking of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP). They like it because they see it as an enabler on the global stage, particularly in balancing major powers against one another. They tend to label important external relationships as “strategic”. A decade ago, we even had a “High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council with Syria” which held its first two meetings in December 2009 and October 2010, the latter less than a year before “brother Assad” became our arch enemy.

The truth is our strategic location is a double-edged-sword. On the one hand, it enables Turkey to project peace, cooperation, and democracy to a wide region. Two decades ago, Turkey was referred to as “an example to follow”. But on the other hand, it makes Turkey vulnerable to unrest and conflict close to its borders, all the more so in its immediate vicinity. The end of the Cold War left Turkey in the middle of three conflict areas, and we paid a high price for disputes in the emergence of which we had no responsibility. So, the JDP leadership needs to realize that Turkey’s national interests are best served in times of peace and stability rather than turmoil as framed in Ataturk’s dictum “peace at home, peace in the world”.

Today our peace at home is in jeopardy and we certainly do not have peace on our Middle East borders. There is no question that Arab Spring tremors were to impact Turkey like the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the instability in the Caucasus or the US invasion of Iraq. But we should have read it correctly and acted accordingly. Today the region is in chaos. Turkey is faced with multiple threats to its national security. We are home to millions of Syrian refugees and others. We have become neighbors with terrorist organizations. We no longer have ambassadors in Syria, Israel, and Egypt. We face the prospect of a fragmented Syria. Despite this picture, it still hasn’t dawned upon the Government that it needs to change course.

In the beginning, the JDP government opened Turkey’s borders to refugees in the misguided belief that the Syrian regime would soon collapse, and they would all go back eternally grateful to their Turkish hosts. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite happened, and another influx may prove to be the last straw.

Last August, faced with a potential migration wave from Afghanistan, Turkish President Erdogan called on European nations to shoulder the responsibility for Afghans fleeing the Taliban and warned that Turkey will not become Europe’s “refugee warehouse.” The sad reality is Turkey has already become exactly that, and European countries look at Turkey only from the prism of their refugee worries.

With JDP’s Syria policy Turkey has entered a danger zone. At present, Ankara’s competitors/adversaries as well as allies are trying to take advantage of our diplomatic isolation. So, Ankara’s only option is to go back, sooner than later, to the settings of Turkey’s Republican foreign and security policy. Any hope? Regrettably, none whatsoever.

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