by Ahmet Aslan (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 12, Jumada' al-Ula', 1438)
Turkey’s stubborn President Recep Tayip Erdogan has been forced to change his stand on Syria and has stopped the ludicrous demand that President Asad must go.
Before departing from Istanbul Airport on January 22 for an official visit to three African countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated one of his pompous statements. He said, “Turkey is the strongest and the most influential country in the Middle East.” Erdogan seems to suffer from muddled thinking. It is difficult to understand why he thinks Turkey is the strongest country in the region given its diminishing reputation and influence.
At the initial stages of the conflict in Syria when Turkey decided to side with the US-, Saudi- and Qatar-led camp, the AKP was completely convinced that their vicious alliance would oust Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in a couple of months and establish a domesticated regime in Damascus. However, Turkey’s initial delusion was proven to be unattainable as a result of the rise of the terrorist group, ISIS, and the threat posed by the Kurdish group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. Turkey was forced to revise its policy to include three more objectives: establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria that would boost opposition forces against the Syrian army; prevent the YPG from creating an autonomous zone in northern Syria; and, clear the border areas of the ISIS threat. That these aims would be achieved in the process of the eventual removal of al-Asad from power was the thinking in Ankara.
However, after six years of conflict, Turkey has achieved none of its objectives. It failed to convince the US and its European allies to establish a no-fly zone through the use of force. There is now a de facto Kurdish state operating on Turkey’s borders independently of the Syrian government. Absurdly, the YPG has even managed to ally with the US. Despite Turkey’s protests, Washington has been fully supporting the YPG, and it has so far prevented Turkey from taking decisive action against the Kurdish group. On the ISIS front, Turkey achieved some early successes by cutting off ISIS’s physical connections to Turkey. These gains will not be solidified if Turkey cannot capture important border towns like al-Bab. Despite its self-confidence, the Turkish army has been unsuccessful in capturing al-Bab for several months. The Turkish army’s reputation has been diminishing due to increasing number of casualties and failure to capture al-Bab. Most importantly, al-Asad remains fully entrenched in power in Damascus, stronger than at any point in this conflict.
Despite all his stubbornness and arrogance, Erdogan must have realised by now that Turkey’s Syria policy has turned into an utter disaster. However, he still needs to put on a brave face for the Turkish public. Erdogan is on his way to achieving his lifelong ambition of becoming the all-powerful president of Turkey. The necessary constitutional changes were accepted by the parliament last month, and a referendum is expected to take place in April 2017. Erdogan is geared up for the referendum, and domestically he is playing his populist game by making Turkish people feel great. But there is a caveat in this rosy scenario. Since the liberation of Aleppo by the Syrian army, it is clear that the foreign-backed rebellion against al-Asad’s government is doomed to fail and Turkey must now work for the best possible outcome in such a scenario, including shifting its policy toward Syria.
This admission came on January 5 when Numan Kurtulmus, deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, acknowledged Turkey’s mistakes in Syria. He said, “From the beginning, I was among those who believed [Turkey’s] Syria policy was full of grave mistakes.” He also made it clear that Turkey is not happy with the idea that President al-Asad remains in power but he added that it was up to the negotiating parties to decide on his fate. Thus, for the first time, Turkish officials have publicly confirmed that they no longer object to al-Asad’s presidency.
On January 20, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, in a panel at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, made a similar comment regarding Turkey’s approach to al-Asad’s fate, “The facts on the ground [in Syria] have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without al-Asad, it’s not realistic.” He quickly backtracked from his comments and blamed Sputnik for the “distortion” but his comments, made in front of the cameras, were undeniable.
As a matter of fact, since the replacement of Ahmet Davutoglu by Binali Yildirim as Prime Minister, the Turkish government has been gradually preparing the public for the worst-case scenario, that is the fall of Aleppo. However, the AKP government was still not prepared to accept that al-Asad should remain in power. In July 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, “We normalised relations with Russia and Israel. I’m sure we will normalise ties with Syria as well. For the fight against terrorism to succeed, stability needs to return to Syria and Iraq.” However, a few days later in a BBC Hardtalk interview, he set out the conditions for normalisation, “Things need to change in Syria, but first of all al-Asad should change. Unless al-Asad changes, nothing changes in Turkey. As long as al-Asad is there, the problem won’t be solved… We’ll have some other terrorist organisation coming up because it’s the attitude of the Syrian regime which created [IS]… As long as al-Asad is there, the problem won’t be solved.”
The Syrian army’s liberation of Aleppo changed all these expectations and exacerbated Ankara’s dilemma. This is why in November 2016, when the Syrian army and its allied forces gained a series of victories against Turkish-backed armed groups in Aleppo, Erdogan made a frustrated statement that “…we have entered into Syria to end the state terror and al-Asad’s rule, not for any other reason.” He was referring to Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory. In fact, Erdogan was making a desperate threat against the Syrian government to stop it from taking over Aleppo. The fall of Aleppo would be a major blow to Turkey’s efforts to topple President al-Asad. Erdogan’s remarks drew immediate criticism from Iran, Russia, and China and he had to backpedal from his statement of two days earlier.
Cengiz Candar, the well-known commentator on Turkey’s foreign policy, wrote in December 2016, “The fate of Aleppo has the potential to seal the fate of [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s regime in Turkey. Too many of Erdogan's eggs are placed in the basket of northern Syrian geopolitics, and most of them are likely to crack.” Further, another commentator, Fehim Tastekin, explained that “what makes Erdogan’s anger understandable is the reality that armed groups losing ground in Aleppo will retreat to the Turkish border. What these tens of thousands of heavily armed, combat-trained militants will be doing at the Turkish border is the most vital question of the scary scenario. Looking at the Syrian regime’s game plan, this is what one sees: the Syrian army is facilitating the armed rebel groups to withdraw to the Turkish border by providing bus transport to carry the militants northward from areas they gave up.”
Turkey has been shifting its alliance due to the hard realities taking place in Syria. The AKP government has already been isolated by the US and European powers after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Russia was the only major power to support Erdogan immediately after the coup. Consequently, Turkey has already become a partner with Russia but Aleppo’s liberation has accelerated this shift considerably. A year ago the two countries were on the verge of war; now they are conducting joint operations against ISIS in Syria. There are rumours that as a result of negotiations between Turkey and Russia, Turkish forces will withdraw from the vicinity of al-Bab and let the approaching Syrian forces retake the town.
Having said that one must understand that Erdogan is a very pragmatic person and he would not completely cut relations with the US and Europe. He would make sure in his dealings with Russia, he does not upset the US and Europe too much.