Syria’s civil war has proven a transformative experience for Turkey. The violence of Syria’s war pushed millions into neighbouring countries, of which Turkey was one; but Turkey felt extra pressure and opportunity as a gateway to Europe.
Other groups contended with the Islamic State; but Turkey saw its enemy of decades, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It saw the YPG favoured by the global coalition and finally abandoned by the Americans, affording Turkey space to dislodge its long-term enemy almost a decade into the fighting.
Many maintained, when the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began meeting protests with deadly force, that Assad had to go but that posture was held for years. Turkey hosted opposition figures and put its weight behind the Syrian National Coalition, an interim government that briefly occupied Syria’s seat at the Arab League.
Long after many other countries quietly dropped demands that Assad leave office before peace in Syria could take effect, Turkey continued to call for Assad’s departure. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed moral outrage at the prospect of Assad remaining in power after the crimes his regime has committed.
Central to Turkey’s concern about an unresolved civil conflict in Syria was fear that Assad remaining in place meant more violence and instability, more refugees and a more radical and brutalised southern neighbour.
Erdogan helped the regime’s enemies in the Syrian National Army (SNA) – a Turkish-organised union of rebel and Islamist forces – and maintained long after others had stopped that Assad had to go. When a Russian and regime offensive seemed likely in Idlib province earlier this year, Erdogan wrote in the New York Times of the extreme suffering Assad’s viciousness could inflict.
Erdogan cares now, as he has always cared, more about rooting out the PKK than Syria. If defeating the PKK in Syria means strengthening Assad, for Erdogan that is acceptable.
When Erdogan began Turkey’s offensive in Afrin, the YPG heavily implied it would ally with, and thus strengthen, the Assad regime in its own defence. Knowing this was once again likely, Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish-held territory in north-eastern Syria strengthened the regime and involved a deal with Assad’s patrons, Iran and Russia.
Erdogan is not committed to Assad – only to the practical use of dealing with him at the moment – hence Turkey’s continuing to delay official engagement with the Assad regime and its going over Assad’s head to deal with Russia and Iran directly.
Omer Ozkizilcik, who works in the security department at the Turkish Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, said: ‘The Russian side was very interested in getting a deal which foresees a rapprochement between Turkey and the Assad regime but this wasn’t achieved, seemingly. Turkey maintains its position as the sole guarantor of the Syrian opposition, trying to enforce a political transition process. Ankara is arguing that only after a political transition and free and fair elections, Turkey will restart direct, official contact with a new government of Syria respecting the will of the Syrians.
‘However, we have to underline that Turkey knows that the entire world has betrayed the Syrians in their efforts to get rid of the Assad regime and realpolitik suggests that Turkey doesn’t work anymore on toppling Assad militarily but to ensure a political transition as much as Turkey can do. Ankara is aware that the moment it does start official contact, the political transition process and the constitutional committee [Syria’s interim government] will become meaningless.’
Turkey has, for a time, successfully separated its accommodation with Russia and Assad in north-eastern Syria from Turkey’s continued protection of Idlib province. But the division is paper thin.
‘The deal on north-eastern Syria does not include Idlib. Both issues are separated from each other but, certainly, when the dust settles in north-eastern Syria, Turkey and Russia will focus on Idlib and try to find a solution to the region’, Ozkizilcik said. ‘It might be possible to see an operation by the SNA against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or other smaller radical groups such as al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras al-Din, especially after the unification of all armed Syrian opposition groups on October 4.’
Any accommodation faces extreme hostility from SNA fighters who provide the numbers in Turkey’s offensive against the YPG. Many are rebels of long standing and are unlikely to brook any deal with Assad. This is if Assad’s forces and allies don’t begin to fight them first.
‘Assad’s forces with Russian air and artillery support are highly likely to start targeting Turkey’s rogue groupings of Sunni jihadists under an SNA command and control structure’, said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Any confrontation risks the breakdown of Turkey’s coalition.
‘Turkey will not come to the defence of these groups as they engage all players on the battlefield and are targeted by Assad, Iran and Russia. Neither Russia nor Turkey have command and control of the ground force they are relying on. A fight is coming,’ Pregent said.
‘Any fragile agreement between Ankara and Damascus is short-lived. All hell is about to break loose – regardless of Turkey’s easing its position on Assad’s longevity.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.