Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ankara has yet to define the result it wants in Syria

A few weeks ago when Tel Abyad fell to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PDY), many said the loss served to sever ISIL supply lines. Left strangely unmentioned, however, was that these supply lines led only to Turkey.

While Turkey has denied backing ISIL, the relationship is far more complex than is apparent. Ankara views the group as a weapon against two principal enemies, the Kurds and Bashar Al Assad. This illustrates the strange byways that Turkey has taken under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly since 2011, when the uprising began in Syria.

Turkey’s actions in recent years have brought uneven results. Since 2011, the Turks have mismanaged their relationship with the United States, for little tangible gain. They have failed to oust Mr Al Assad. They have seen their regional rival Iran build up influence along their southern border. They have faced a major Syrian refugee crisis and now the Turkish government is perceived as being in bed with extremists.

On top of that, Mr Erdogan is increasingly contested at home and the policies he is pursuing in Syria are unpopular. Indeed, recent leaks that Turkey’s military would establish a buffer zone inside Syria were soon taken back, amid signs that the move would not be welcomed by many Turks.

Turkey and the United States today find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict against ISIL, and, consequently, differ over the endgame in Syria. The Obama administration seeks a political solution, but in the absence of this does not want Damascus to fall to jihadists. Mr Erdogan also wants to compel Mr Al Assad to talk, but to do so he has helped groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, while providing ISIL with logistical depth.

Nowhere has Ankara and Washington been working at cross purposes more than in northern Syria, where the coalition has collaborated with the PDY against ISIL. This has alarmed Turkey, which fears that Kurdish gains may spur separatist impulses among its own Kurds. Yet its response, namely assisting ISIL, has only isolated Turkey internationally.

The Turks legitimately argue that Barack Obama’s Syria policy has been incoherent, obliging Turkey to take its own path. Repeatedly, the Americans have blocked initiatives from which Turkey might have benefited, such as the creation of safety areas and the imposition of a no-fly zone. Not doing so exacerbated the refugee crisis Turkey is facing today.

Yet American incompetence aside, Turkey, too, contributed initially to the chaos among Syrian rebel groups, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the ruling AKP Party sympathised. This failed, contributing to the fragmented rebel leadership. Since then Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have unified their efforts, but without calculating how the groups they support might ultimately affect regional stability.

Beyond that, the likelihood of a nuclear deal with Iran will further put pressure on Turkey. An accord, by removing sanctions on Tehran, will free up funds allowing it to pursue its regional agenda, especially in Syria. Beyond that Washington, whose ties with Turkey have declined under Mr Erdogan, may gradually build closer relations with Iran in the region, shifting its reliance away from traditional allies.

When he came to power over a decade ago Mr Erdogan sought a radical realignment of Turkish foreign policy, with a greater focus on the region, to the extent that observers saw this as a form of “neo-Ottomanism”. Yet Ankara’s ambitions collided with those of major Arab states, particularly over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Mr Erdogan seemed unable to match reality and expectations, creating a sense of flailing as Turkey became bogged down in regional quarrels.

The Turks may finally be making some headway in Syria. They reportedly helped Mr Al Assad’s enemies achieve major gains in Idlib province. The regime is also losing ground in Aleppo, and may soon have to abandon the city. However, in Syria’s north-east, Turkey seemed unwilling to deploy troops as it might have created discontent at home while also leading to a confrontation with the United States over the Kurds.

Ankara has to define the outcome it desires in Syria, and coordinate this with other regional and international actors. It intends to raise the heat on Mr Al Assad to impel him to step down. Yet the Syrian president is more an Iranian-backed figurehead these days than anything else, therefore at the heart of Turkey’s considerations is, really, its relationship with Tehran.

The most probable outcome is that as Syria breaks apart, both countries will satisfy themselves with a zone of influence – Turkey in the north and north-east, Iran in coastal areas, Damascus and along communication lines in between.

Or Turkey may back armed groups challenging the Iranian zone.

Until then, Mr Erdogan will have to adjust to greater Iranian power in the Levant, while reassuring the West that Turkey is not a terrorism sponsor. That may not be easy given the reported influence ISIL enjoys inside Turkey.

In wanting his country to become a power in the Middle East, Mr Erdogan has brought the region’s intractable problems home.

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