February 27, 2017
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 theorists 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, primarily among them the indisputable reality that Arab countries would never, ever subscribe to a neo-Ottoman regional order. A democratic Turkey inspiring peoples and leading by example was another story.
Einstein once said: “No one but a theorist believes his theory; everyone puts faith in a laboratory result but the experimenter himself.”
And, the first laboratory experiment came in Egypt, first with mixed results which then turned into failure. The second one in Syria was a disaster not to mention Libya.
In other words, five years ago, JDP’s self-proclaimed mission was the political/cultural/economic conquest of the Middle East, thus making Turkey great again. However, in a dramatic turn of events, this mission evolved into maintaining Syria’s unity and territorial integrity. The recapture of al Bab from ISIS thus became the target of operation Euphrates Shield. This has been accomplished at a cost. But the question “what next?” hangs heavily in the air and tempers satisfaction to be drawn from having liberated the third major stronghold of ISIS in Syria.
None of the options on the table are attractive. Moreover, every single one of these requires a minimum level of cooperation between Russia, the United States, the Assad regime and the fractured Syrian opposition. And Ankara, usually more than ready to engage in rhetoric has been remarkably restrained during the past few weeks.
Insofar as Russia is concerned, it was obvious from day one that the restoration of relations with Russia would be a long and difficult process. Russia’s Foreign Ministry Department Director, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, recently said that neither the PKK nor the YPG are on the list of terrorist organizations in Russia. Ankara did not react. Russian aircraft, due to lack of better coordination, killed and wounded Turkish soldiers in an air attack on ISIS targets in al Bab. No one expected and wished this tragic incident to lead to another crisis but the speed with which it was put behind could not escape notice. A new Syrian constitution drafted by Russia somehow found its way to the press. Again, Ankara avoided public comment which in this case was the right attitude. In its first chapter of seventeen articles, this draft refers to Syria’s territorial integrity six times. It says that “Syria consists of constituent parts.” It also refers to “Kurdish Cultural Autonomy”. Thus, the Russian and Turkish presidents will have a full agenda when they meet in Moscow on March 9-10.
Insofar as the United States is concerned, Ankara is anxiously waiting for the Trump administration to define, in more concrete terms, its policy towards the Syrian conflict. Thus, the government chose not to react to the refugee ban. It remained silent on Netanyahu government’s settlement policy and President Trump’s upending the American position on the two-state-vision. It took jabs at the gone Obama administration to gain favor with its successor. And, joining Israel and Saudi Arabia it raised the level of criticism directed at Iran.
All of this, together with the offer to contribute militarily to the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, aims at securing Washington’s support in sidelining PYD/YPG in Syria. But the elements of the offer are unclear. Al Bab is some 20 kilometers from the Turkish border and it took the Turkish Armed Forces six months to declare that the town was finally liberated. It may take longer to clear the remaining pockets of resistance in the area. Suffice it to say that Raqqa is 90 kilometers from the Turkish border. As head of US Central Command General Votel’s and Senator John McCain’s visits to Raqqa and Kobani reveal Washington is still trying to figure out the best composition of forces to liberate ISIS’ capital in Syria.
Looking at Ankara’s relations with Washington one cannot but remember that the first high-level visitor to Ankara following President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 was Mr. Obama himself. Following President Trump’s inauguration, the first visitor was CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The visit by Mr. Obama reflected a desire to engage Turkey as Washington’s principal regional partner; the visit by Mr. Pompeo was designed to explore the possibilities for transactional cooperation with Ankara. How the Trump administration would respond to Ankara’s calls for “a new page in relations” is another matter. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that those who were highlighting Turkey’s “model partnership” with the United States five years ago, are now looking for a “reset”.
In brief, Ankara is waiting for Moscow and Washington to agree on the parameters of their cooperation in Syria. And there are others, also waiting. Last Thursday, a day before the start of the fourth round of Geneva talks aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s long-running conflict, UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that he was not expecting a breakthrough.
In a country with a short memory it is useless to dwell upon how Turkey could have avoided getting drawn into the Syrian quagmire or help contain the conflict. However, even at this late stage, Turkey can do its best to ensure that the regional agenda is not burdened further with new challenges. For this:
- Ankara should avoid an unnecessary confrontation with Iran. Yes, Iran has been engaged in region’s proxy wars but who hasn’t? In 2010, when the UN Security Council cited Iran’s lack of compliance with its previous resolutions on ensuring the peaceful nature of its nuclear program for imposing additional sanctions on Tehran, Turkey, then a non-permanent member, voted against Resolution 1929 drawing criticism from its allies. Now, there is the nuclear deal which was also perceived as an investment in better relations between Iran and the West. So, we should avoid going from one extreme to the other since this would only reveal, as has been the case with Syria, our inability to judge our neighbors. And we should not forget, as amply shown by developments in Iraq and Syria, that when our neighbors are in trouble we are in trouble also.
- Ankara should avoid taking open-ended military commitments in Syria especially when they are not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Dislodging ISIS from Raqqa and Mosul will not be end of the story. Our security policy should prioritize preventing ISIS from taking further root in Turkey.
- Ankara should focus on a political solution to the Syrian conflict and try to convince the Syrian opposition that there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict; that support for them is waning; and that separating the moderate opposition from others designated by the UN Security Council as terrorists is still an issue.