Syria is out but Turkey stays in

Syrian state is a wreck and Assad stays in power. No political solution is in sight, Western public opinion is tired by Syria and Syria is off the headlines as the conflict freezes over. Turkey stays and will stay in Syria for the foreseeable future.

It’s been ten years around this time since the Syrian War has started. The status-quo of the divided Syria seems to have become permanent for the foreseeable future. The refugee flow subsided. An equal number of Syrians live in territories under Assad regime and areas controlled by the SDG (AANES) and abroad.

Assad managed to gain and remain in control of the “useful” Syria: Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus together with the Mediterranean coastal strip (Tartus and Latakia). Nevertheless, the “resourceful” Syria though, rich in oil and grains remains under U.S. backed SDF. Greater Syria gave way to what to a country that looks like another, slightly bigger Lebanon.

Constitutional talks via the UN sponsored Geneva track are going nowhere and effectively stalled. Short of a return to the status quo ante bellum, Assad has no interest in going forward with those talks. He has his hands already full, having secured his regime yet lost the capacity to rule alone.

Turkey is host to almost four million Syrians which legally do not enjoy refugee status. Turkey also remains militarily in charge of the adjacent Idleb, Afrin and Bab pockets as well as the separate Ras Al Ayn-Tel Abyad pocket to the East of Euphrates. While apparently working with the U.S. in Idlib, Turkey coordinates its Syria policy with Russia and Iran too, through the Astana Process.

Turkey’s military objectives appear to be clear and achievable. The political end-state though remains elusive if not on purpose ambiguous. Ankara’s foreign policy in general, timidly qualified as “assertive”, remains fully militarized especially when it comes to Syria and Iraq. President Erdoğan is convinced that time is on his side and patience or even lethargy will pay out.

As reflected in the press release put out marking the tenth year of the conflict by its Foreign Ministry, for Turkey the presence on its Syrian border of both DAESH and the YPG is perceived as an existential threat. Ankara is keen on equivocating the two and does not miss any opportunity to call on the US to stop cooperating with the latter.

If history is our guide, it may be claimed that, avoided in military planning by the US after Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, “mission creep” and/or “fait-accompli” is to the contrary the motto for Turkey. To the extent that body bags, gruesome killings, mass casualty terror attacks in the mainland, soaring expenditures do not have a similar effect in Turkey as in the West, Ankara will remain satisfied to stay in Syria as long as it deems necessary.

Lack of accountability and transparency, non-existence of a free media and censorship, shortcomings in democratic due process as in a side-lined parliament, all contribute and comfort the current state of play. All the more so that even in the event of a change in power following the upcoming 2023 elections, no radical changes can be expected in Turkey’s present Syrian policy of clear, hold and build while paying constant diplomatic lip service to Syrian national unity and territorial integrity.

The Turkish public opinion at worst ignores or at best does not pay attention to Syria. The magic mantra of “counter-terrorism effort” combined with a rhetoric inspired by lost past imperial “grandeur” held the public opinion behind the government till today. Ergo, even if neither the Syria policy nor the presence of up to four million Syrians predominantly in İstanbul are popular with the public, there exists also no clear challenges neither from the public nor from the opposition with few exceptions to the government.  

That Syria policy involves both motion and inertia at the same time. Motion, as in when a mere window of opportunity opens Turkey is ready to move in and inertia, as in staying power as long as it is deemed necessary as indicated above. To connect the Peace Spring pocket with the twin Afrin and Bab pockets to the west, establishing a full buffer zone extending from Amanos to Zagros, taking control of the Semelka-Fishkhabur border crossing, establishing a military foothold in Shengal and laying siege to or failing to do that, isolating Qandil are the unchanged military objectives of Turkey.      

Any change in Ambassador Jeffrey’s U.S. policy of selling out the Kurds and creating a quagmire for Russia and Iran in Syria will depend not only on the planning of the Biden administration but also on many other variables. Changing Iran’s behaviour by bringing it back to the negotiation table for the nuclear deal is one, the increasing probability of a full implosion in Iraq this year is another. The turn US-Russia relations will take is in the mix as well. 

Turkey-US bilateral relations are in tatters too. Erdoğan is still waiting to hear from his American counterpart Biden. It is also clear that not only Syria but even the entire Middle East are not among top priorities of the Biden administration. Erdoğan can only wait so long and if further cornered by the Biden administration can turn around to Moscow to seek a three-way solution involving Damascus.

Time and above cited variables’ course will affect one way or the other Washington’s approach to Ankara in Syria. Instead of a tragic denouement, it may as well be case that the current state of play stays the same for a long time to come. Some pundits, to my mind prematurely, claim a potential friction among various officials at the US administration to even further divide it to respective Sloat and McGurk teams when it comes to Turkey file.

That divide seems if not altogether artificial, not so imminent. Still, as opposed to Jeffrey’s take, much will depend on whether Biden administration will be willing to tackle, even if indirectly, Turkey’s Kurdish question including the AANES and the IKR. Democratization of Turkey, if happens one day, will be built upon the basis of finding a peaceful political solution to its Kurdish question and a fully democratic Turkey is in the interests of both the US and the EU.    

Turkey’s coercive power proved itself in Syria and Iraq -and in Qarabagh too for that matter. On the persuasive power and administrative diligence fronts however, the balance sheet is clearly negative. This shows the lack of capacity of the current presidential system. Yet again, as in China in Hong Kong or in Russia in Crimea, coercion carries the day undisturbed for the time being.

Therefore, if meaningful change in Syria is still envisaged, Turkey cannot and should not be counted out. The best, “win-win” way so-to-speak to do that is to find creative and constructive ways to bring the full EU membership target visibly back on Ankara’s horizon. If a bargain can be struck between Turkey and France in a strange twist of history and if the US gears back into its traditional diplomatic position of lobbying for Turkey for its full EU membership, pieces may start to move in Syria.   

At the end of day, up to millions of Syrians suffered, hundreds of thousands lost their lives or witnessed the loss of the lives of their loved ones, are eradicated from their homes, left their country or changed sides within Syria. Syrian state is a wreck and Assad stays in power. No political solution is in sight, Western public opinion is tired by Syria and Syria is off the headlines as the conflict freezes over. Turkey stays and will stay in Syria for the foreseeable future.

April 12, 2021 Ursula standing