How long can Ankara delay speaking with Damascus?

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Translated by Melissa Clissold

For a long time, Turkey’s foreign policy has focused solely on Syria, and Turkey has become somewhat paralysed because of this. Ankara’s commitment to overthrow the Assad regime has lead to losses within the country. However, it seems that Ankara’s insistence on refusing to talk with Damascus, and instead to carry out their discussions via Moscow, Washington or Tehran, will not come to an end easily.

Hello, good day. For a long time, Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, for years in fact, has been focused on Syria. The mistakes that have been made regarding Syria have somewhat imprisoned Turkey, and heavy prices have been, and will continue to be paid. One side of this incident is with regards to the millions of immigrants who have come to Turkey; another side is with regards to the huge losses, serious expenses, military operations etc. And Turkey is still not a country that can see its future in terms of the Syrian issue. Today, once more, President Erdoğan met with Putin and we know that Syria was one of the primary points on their agenda.

Idlib is a topic on the agenda of Syria, it is an important incident; but another issue is with regards to the safety zone that Turkey is planning to create together with the US in the region to the East of the Euphrates.  But this is what draws our attention: We see a very intense diplomatic process taking place with regards to problems and developments within Turkey’s Syrian agenda; but as you can see at the moment, Turkey is meeting with Iran, Russia, taking part in collaborative summits; or Turkey is talking with the US, Ruhani and Putin are meeting, or Erdoğan is having discussions with Trump.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs is holding discussions with the US, Iran and Russian Foreign Ministers; the ministers of defense are speaking with one another; but Turkey is still not talking with Syria. Syria is talking; but Turkey refuses to talk with Syria, Damascus and Bashar Assad. This is not a sustainable policy, and has not been for a long time; but it’s as if there is a certain stubbornness and it appears that Erdoğan’s administration is adamant in refusing to officially talk with the Assad regime. There are very harsh criticisms from the Assad front; however; I’m not sure that they are as insistent in holding back discussions with Turkey.

If we were to look at this story, the most extreme points in both the positive and the negative sense were experienced with regards to Turkey’s foreign policy regarding Syria. There was a time where Ankara and Damascus were very close, and Erdoğan and Assad were also very close; in fact, their families were very intimate. They would come together on different occasions and joint cabinets would get convene. Turkey had a claim during that time; it tried to become a mentor to Assad – who the Western world had somewhat alienated or wanted to exclude – there was a claim to be a facilitator, a mediator.

In fact this situation had nearly led them to becoming the mediator between Syria and Israel – this claim was brought to light – and then suddenly, that very close relationship – and I think it was wrong, within all that intensity, to prioritize Syria was not a very smart thing to do – The Assad regime was not really an appropriate regime for Turkey to embrace and not criticize; but afterwards all failed, and a complete disconnection took place. Assad’s name became “Asad” and all sorts of bonds were ruptured. This lasted for a long time. We have only just reached a point where the spokesperson for the President, İbrahım Kalın has stated that “perhaps there may be some point of contact between our intelligence services.” It has not been able to go further than this.

Certainly certain meetings are probably taking place in a discrete manner or at the lower level with some intermediaries. This may happen between states; but there is no where to go with this attitude when it comes to Assad and the Syrian regime. For example, recently Hulusi Akar made a statement about Idlib as follows – I will share this as much as I remember: “We are meeting with Russia openly, but the military regime in Damascus is still disturbing.” Meaning, the interlocutor here is Damascus, but discussions are being held with Moscow or Tehran depending on the situation. There is no point anymore in Turkey pretending that the Syrian regime does not exist when it comes to their meeting or policies regarding Syria. To be so engaged in overthrowing the government was a mistake in the first place.

There is a 180-degree difference with how they acted during that time and how they are acting at the moment. Let’s remember that time: At first, Turkey, with the support of the West – but mostly the Gulf countries – tried to overthrow the Assad regime and construct a new regime with a majority made up of the Muslim Brotherhood. They believed and were excited that this could happen in a short amount of time; because plenty of regimes were falling apart, including in Egypt and several Arab countries. They thought that Syria would also fall apart, because they believed that the Muslim Brotherhood, consisting of Sunnis, the majority in Syria, had this power; but it became clear that this would not happen so easily. This time, the jihadists gained power and we do know that during that time, Turkey gave a certain amount of support and showed tolerance to jihadista along with its allies.

Then the story turned into a complete nightmare. Especially from Turkey’s point of view. Because, both Iran and Russia played an active role and the Assad regime managed to continue its existence. Now, it almost controls all parts of the nation – I say almost, because there are still problems in other places and Turkey lays claim to these places. There are areas in the north of the country that Turkey has under its control. Controlling the east of the Euphrates, or at least a claim to create a safe zone in order to prevent attacks that it may experience. And there is the relationship between Turkey and those powers who come up against the regime in Idlib.

Therefore, Turkey actually controls a large portion of the land that the Assad and the Damascus regime do not control. This is not a sustainable policy; it must at some point stop carrying out politics that involves discussing the east of the Euphrates with the US or discussing Idlib with Russia, or partnering with either the US or Russia to shatter the dominance of the PYD/YPG in the North of Syria. And Turkey must face this reality at some point; I don’t think that it’ll be able to postpone this for much longer. There is no where that Turkey can go with this amount of stubbornness.

Turkey is also acting in quite a similar way with Egypt too and this also comes at a heavy price. Of course there was nothing wrong with the attitude taken against Sisi, who overthrew the Mursi Regime and the Muslim Brotherhood regime; but whilst the rest of the world enters some sort of relationship with Egypt, the fact that Turkey does not enter any sort of official relationship with the Arab world’s most important power, creates very serious political, strategic and at times, economic problems. This stubbornness is costing Ankara a lot. In almost everything that has taken place, the most fundamental reason for why this has cost so much – it was like this with Egypt at first, of course it was a right move to come against the coup – Turkey needed to maintain a stand against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi administrations that alienated other societal powers; Ankara and Erdoğan who somewhat asked for patronage, should have provided a clear warning regarding these issues. And later, they realized – later, rather than sooner -that trying to engross these ruling powers provided the ground for the coup, but it was too late. Our real problem is the fact that Turkey made a big mistake with regards to Syria.

One of those responsible for this mistake firsthand is of course Ahmet Davutoğlu – we know that his hour long meeting with Assad became a turning point. We don’t have that much information regarding what was discussed in that meeting. Just as Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed in his speech the other day in Sakarya, when history is written, maybe it’ll be then that we find out about what actually happened, but after that moment onwards, Ankara made some very serious mistakes:

  1. It exaggerated its own power.
  2. It exaggerated the power if its allies. 
  3. It underestimated the power of the Assad regime and his followers and this resulted in a complete fiasco.

We are paying the price for this fiasco all together and this truly needs to end. I think that the only way for this to end is for Ankara and Damascus to enter official relationships – I do not know to what level – but in some way, for ambassadors to take on active roles and for certain official correspondences to take place is necessary. This is both important for the Syrian migrants living in Turkey, but also for the Syrians living there and the future of Turkey. With this attitude of ignoring, there will be many more prices that we will have to pay.

From what I can see, Erdoğan does not want to use this approach; because he burnt bridges in a very serious manner. But we know that Erdoğan holds a pragmatism that has allowed him to re-form relationships with those institutions that he had also burnt bridges with; maybe this will be the last thing he does, but he has to do it. Even if Erdoğan and Assad do not talk to one another, it is not possible for Turkey to ignore Syria – the country that Turkey shares the most of its border with – it never should have ignored it in the first place; those telling the stories of praying together, of going from one end to another in 24 hours etc. are no longer talking, and no one is asking why this is the case.

But we know those days very well; back in the day so many people were excited to see the Assad regime in Syria fall apart – if you look at the newspapers etc. of that time, you’ll see what I mean. Not just the AKP administrators but also people from very different fractions forming a very serious coalition in support against Assad. Now of course, this is none existent and Turkey’s policy regarding Syria has changed dramatically. There is only one exception, and that is not meeting Assad. There is no meaning to meeting with Ruhani and Putin, but not meeting with Assad and the Syrian administrators.

Yes, I don’t want to repeat myself a lot, this coming to an end will be beneficial to everyone. For it to have lasted so long is a huge tragedy and mistake.

Yes, that is all I have to say, good day.  

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