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Can Turkey and Russia Together Make a Difference in Syria?

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This is the season of “resetting” if seen from the angle of Syria’s stormy weather. The US seems to be stepping back from its unrealistic rush to enact an elusive ceasefire even at the expense of giving the Russians more space to lead, the Russians understand that if they do not act on the political track now they may be heading to a prolonged military quagmire evidenced in Aleppo, Assad is waking up from the euphoria he felt following his progress in Aleppo due to the ringing alarm of the opposition’s successful counter attacks, the Saudis are on the path to accepting an oil production freeze to address producers’ pain, including their own and that of Putin, and the Turks are changing their positions rapidly and smoothly.

Obviously, all these actors are coming to realize that no one can win and approaching the situation as a zero-sum game will get them nowhere. Aleppo became the stage where the limits of all sides were clearly revealed. Breaking the impetus of Assad and his allies there will prove to be the beginning of a long marathon towards a different kind of political negotiation. But in terms of the net impact of the current rapid movements, the effects of Turkish-Russian reset deserve to be colored as the most important change in Syria’s weather conditions.

After the meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg on August 9, Erdoğan said that the two would work towards ending the Syrian conflict. “I think that we, Russia and Turkey, should resolve the issue by taking a step together,” he said.

Some noticeable modifications in Ankara’s policies on Syria soon followed. “The Turkish government believes that the current Syrian leadership could potentially take part in talks aimed at resolving the Syria crisis. We want the existing political leadership of the country to take part in the negotiation process,” the RIA news agency quoted Ümit Yardım, Turkey’s ambassador to Russia, as saying in a news conference on August 11.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, however, said in a TV interview that a political transition in Syria with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power was not possible.

It may appear ironic that Moscow, not Washington, was the reason the leaders of Turkey, supposedly a US ally, are finally convinced to adopt the US-Russian stance on the political solution in Syria. But in reality, Putin was not selling a joint policy constituted by Russian and American diplomats to the Turkish President. He was simply selling Moscow’s own policy on Syria to a country that historically has played an important role in the ongoing civil war there, the same way he got Secretary of State John Kerry to drop the previous US policy and inch the US position towards that of Moscow.

That Russia was selling its own position becomes evident when we listen to Frants Klintsevich, the deputy head of Russia’s Senate Committee for Defense. “After its legal status is agreed upon, Hmeimim will become a Russian military base. The appropriate infrastructure will be built and our servicemen will live in worthy conditions. Reconnaissance and fire support from the Russian Air Force allows the Syrian army to successfully complete the tasks at hand, Russia understands that if measures are not taken, the major terrorist threat will reach it too” Klintsevich said. The move indicates that Moscow is seeking to establish another permanent military presence in Syria in addition to its naval base in Tartus. Putin requested, just before the arrival of Erdoğan at the Kremlin, that the parliament ratify an agreement inked with Damascus last year to set up the new base.

While the Russians have also taken the step of using a base in Iran to fly their bombers over Syria, Turkish warplanes will actively participate in operations against ISIL, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said August 11, after Turkey and Russia began to restore relations that had been strained due to the downing of a Russian plane. “If we do not terminate the terror organization right at the beginning, then they attack all the cells like an epidemic. Therefore, at this stage, we will once again actively join the operations against ISIL with our planes,” Çavuşoğlu said.

It is now abundantly clear that “ISIL First” has indeed turned into a global policy. That, in addition to the necessity of a regional alliance to fight ISIL, was the stance of Moscow since day one. It seems that Putin’s plan was to adopt “US First” in order to float his “ISIL First” strategy. Circumstances helped him later get the Turks on board as well. With this motto, Putin is not only furthering Russia’s interest in fighting the Islamists, he is also expanding his direct military presence in the Middle East. Fighting ISIL is not used only to fight ISIL, but also as a spring board to achieve far-reaching strategic objectives: to turn Russia into a leader of an anti-terrorist regional and global alliance.

But how will this impact the situation in Syria?

The fact that fighting ISIL is defined as a priority implies that there is something that will come “second”, And when we examine closely the positions of the US and Russia and how they have evolved we will see the implicit difference between both, not on what is first, but rather on what will follow as second. Though these differences may look minor to some observers at present when we are still in the first stage, it is not rare to see small differences, and the actors’ adjustments following the shifts that happen on the ground, grow beyond their perceived limits and blow away whole endeavors. It is worth considering the assumption that Russia has no “seconds” whatsoever, or only a foggy one that allows Moscow to move comfortably, squeezing gains from the “first” – that is, fighting ISIL to the last drop.

One of the details which will certainly test the relations between the actors, global or regional, is Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN). By reaching a deal with Russia to bomb both ISIL and JAN, the US will effectively be bombing the great majority of the Syrian rebels, some of them supported by Ankara and others trained by the US. There are still some non-Islamist rebels fighting al-Assad in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but most elements of the FSA have been coerced into joining JAN in an unequal alliance called the Army of Islam. JAN created this alliance specifically to ward off US bombs by wrapping non-Islamist groups around itself.

Theoretically, Turkey will be required to completely abandon its Islamist allies in northern Syria. But this is hard to imagine. Furthermore, Turkey is telling the Syrian opposition that its reset of relations with Moscow and Tehran is a result of disappointment in its allies in the West and will position Ankara to play an effective mediation role. In practical terms, this may boil down to a policy ruled by two considerations:

– Turkey does not have any in interest in the continuation of the civil war in Syria, as it has only given Ankara all kinds of headaches over the last five rollercoaster years.

– Turkey is getting back to playing its traditional role of “the bridge” between various geostrategic agendas as this is where it benefits the most.

But the issue is not to predict how Erdoğan will change directions. This is already clear. The real issue is to which extent this change in direction will impact the regional situation, particularly in Syria. For it will be important for Ankara to prove to its allies, old and new, that it can indeed make a difference.

Erdoğan will not throw his leadership image among a good portion of Islamists out the window. Neither his nature nor his interests suggest he will. Rather, he will recalibrate and modify his position in a slow and gradual move, not to become an enemy of Islamists, but to become “the bridge”.

Then there’s the issue of Assad. How certain is Putin that Assad will leave office after accomplishing his “ISIL First” objectives, which further has developed into “ISIL and JAN First”? Will this approach, now seemingly accepted by Ankara and Washington, lead to an “Assad Second”? And what are the chances of bringing peace to Syria at the conclusion of both phases?

First, it is not certain that Putin indeed wants to move Assad away, regardless of what he says during the first stage. Second, as shrewd as Putin is, he may be waiting to see how the balance of power on the ground will evolve during the fight against ISIL and Nusra. Third, he realizes, as everyone else does, that he is making substantial gains and profits out of his limited investment. Washington changed its position, Turkey did the same, the Arabs are pondering a change, and no one talks seriously about getting rid of Assad other than the Syrian people.

The central point in any attempt to answer the question of peace in a Syria minus ISIL and Nusra but plus Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran is simple: the first phase cannot be realistically achieved without declaring the intentions of the relevant parties in relation to the second phase. In other words, it is difficult to conceive of a unity among all Syrians in a joint fight against Jihadists without telling them in advance what will be done with the dictator against whom they revolted in the first place. And it is difficult to conceive of a defeat of Jihadists by Russian planes even if the US and Turkey join the campaign. Aleppo tells us that without words.

Conversely, some experts say that if it is said publicly today that Assad will leave later, the regime in Damascus may collapse the following day. Many Syrians believe this to be an exaggerated assumption and think that pulling Assad out of the theatre could be done in an organized fashion. But the mere assumption of a collapse, even if it is unlikely, is a serious risk.

Somehow, a way out should be found. There are many creative scenarios on the table and the risk may be reduced to minimum. For only when every Syrian believes that the dictator will leave, they will be willing to move together to confront the Jihadists who would have already lost the main argument in justifying their presence. This argument is to fight the butcher president. If they say that they want to rule according to their rigid views of religion, most Syrians will resist that. We have already seen images of the celebrations in Minbij after its liberation from ISIL.

Many in the Middle East believe that Erdoğan obtained a commitment from Putin during their St Petersburg meeting that Russia will not support an independent Kurdish entity on Turkey-Syria borders. It is also believed that the joint Russian-Turkish campaign to fight ISIL will not imply an active Turkish role on Syrian territories, at least not for the time being.

The real difference that the Turks may make now in the regional and Syrian crises is indeed their bridging role. If Ankara calibrates it steps in the next few months that mark casting the direction of its future policies, it may indeed move to playing a constructive role. The assumption that Erdoğan will escalate tensions with the West is greatly exaggerated. First, this does not fit the bridge role that he is claiming back now. Second, there are deeply rooted ties between the two sides that restrain any impulsive policy on the part of both. Third, tension with the West does not serve Erdoğan’s negotiating position with Russia and Iran.

The chances of drawing a clearer and more practical road-map to solve the Syrian crisis are ironically higher now than they previously were. That does not mean that the obstacles are less difficult, it means that a direct player in the Syrian crisis is moving its position to where it can play a constructive role, either on the ground or in diplomatic channels.

The Turkish Prime Minister said that his country and Russia “agree on how to solve the Syrian crisis.” But “solving” the Syrian crisis is too much to expect. Setting the conditions for a long deconfliction to conclude, in a decade or two, with solving the Syrian crisis is a more accurate phrasing of the objective, assuming that this objective includes also fighting radicalism.

The “road” defined by a road map leading to a solution should start with three elements: defeating ISIL militarily, the departure of Assad, and the consent of all relevant players on what should be done to cleanse Syria of violent extremism, as well as on how to rebuild this once-great country.

Source: Middle East Briefing