For the past six years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has excoriated the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, his former ally and friend, for his brutal crackdown on the civilian population during the war against rebel forces.
The name of Mr. Assad has been associated with the illustrating expression of evil in the mind of ordinary Turks, thanks to President Erdogan’s endless efforts to castigate the Syrian ruler. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has, at one point, turned a personal feud between the two leaders who once went to a family vacation in Turkey’s famous holiday resort of Bodrum in early August, in 2008.
Turkey conditioned removal of Mr. Assad from power as a cardinal element of its Syrian policy for any political settlement in the war-torn country.
That position is no longer unwavering. Ankara has recently pivoted away from its lofty goal of a regime change in Damascus to prevent the formation of a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria.
In return from Sochi meeting where Russia, Iran and Turkey all agreed to commit to Syria’s territorial integrity, holding new elections and enacting a new constitution, President Erdogan on Thursday signaled a partial reversal of Turkey’s longstanding Syrian policy.
In an unexpected turnaround, President Erdogan left the door open for contacting Damascus again.
“What would happen tomorrow depends on the conditions of the moment,” he said in response to a question whether Turkey would re-engage with the regime in Damascus as part of a cooperation against Syrian Kurdish political party, or PYD, which Ankara sees as the extension of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“Doors of politics [diplomacy] are always open until the last moment,” he said. “It would be a wrong approach for us by immediately ruling out such cooperation, rejecting such scheme.”
Erdogan: Assad, Too, Views PYD-YPG Negatively
Mr. Putin informed other participants about his meeting with Syrian President Assad a day before the Sochi summit.
“Putin told us that Assad, too, views PYD-YPG negatively. Assad is also against the inclusion of PYD to the table [at peace talks],” President Erdogan said in remarks to Turkish Hurriyet daily.
“They [Damascus] are also against the formation of a structure in northern Syria.”
When asked whether Turkey has begun to talk to Mr. Assad through intermediaries and other channels, President Erdogan said that “there is no such a thing at the moment.”
Rumors swirled in media in September about a secret meeting between Mr. Assad and the Turkish leader. President Erdogan then strongly refuted such reports.
The recent shift in official discourse sits well with Turkey’s re-assessment of priorities and emerging threats in Syria. Ankara sees an emboldening Kurdish militia, with a strong aspiration to form an autonomous political entity all stretching through the Turkish border, as an immediate threat to be dealt with.
“This seems to be in line with where Turkish foreign policy has been headed since 2016 when Erdogan reconnected with Russia,” Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, told Turkey Post.
“The Turkish government clearly views the presence of PKK-linked groups in Syria as a far greater threat than Assad. In any event, he cannot do much about Assad at this point and must seek some form of modus vivendi with the Syrian regime eventually,” he said.
So from Erdogan’s point of view, he argued, it would seem to make a lot of sense to explore the Russian trank further and see if he can use the Syrian government to contain the Kurdish leadership in Syria.
The language of Sochi memorandum clearly reflects a sea change in Turkey’s stance regarding the Syrian conflict. Ankara strongly commits itself to the territorial integrity of its southern neighbor, rejecting any separate entity in the north.
“Whether it will actually work is another matter, but floating it as an option has its own value since it can scare the Kurds and warn the Americans that this is an option unless they help him handle this problem,” Mr. Lund stated.
Turkey’s obsession with Syrian Kurdish force pushes Ankara to revisit even its entrenched positions.
“First, Erdogan is clearly signaling that he would consider aligning himself with Assad against the YPG,” Henri Barkey, a professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, told Turkey Post.
“The problem, of course, is whether he can trust Assad? Assad blames him for much of the misery rightly or wrongly,” he noted, pointing to Syria’s resentment of Turkey’s interference in its domestic struggle.
Turkey Sees Syrian Kurds Bigger Threat
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Turkey had backed rebel forces in their quest to topple the Assad regime. The emergence of ISIS and Syrian Kurds’ entry to the equation after their successful drive to uproot ISIS from northern Syria altered calculations of Ankara, which shifted its focus to blunt PYD’s aspirations rather than working to bring Mr. Assad’s demise.
The Kurdish element is even driving a wedge between two NATO allies, Turkey and the U.S.
President Erdogan repeatedly blasted the U.S. for sending armored vehicles to YPG, questioning the U.S. motive for further strengthening the militia after the military defeat of Islamic State and Raqqa takeover.
On Friday, U.S. President Donald J. Trump “assured” the Turkish leader in a phone conversation that the U.S. will no longer supply arms to Syrian Kurdish militia.
“Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that his nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said of the phone call.
While Turkey and the U.S. have increasingly divergent views over Syria, Ankara moved closer to Moscow.
“Russia has long been pushing for a Syrian-Turkish understanding that would bring the two countries together again as partners in the region,” Joshua Landis, a professor at Department of International and Area Studies at University of Oklahoma, said in remarks to Turkey Post.
Syria, he underlined, is interested in regaining the territories that remain under rebel control around Idlib as well as those north of Aleppo where Turkey has direct influence.
“Syria would also like Turkey to cease its assistance for and protection of Syrian rebel forces,” he said.
Turkey, he emphasized, is interested in preventing the Kurds of Syria, which are led by the PKK affiliated PYD from gaining independence or even a broad degree of autonomy, which would allow them to assist the PKK in attacking the Turkish military.
According to Mr. Landis, the outline of a deal between Assad and Erdogan are easily discernible.
“The question remains, however, whether the two sides can put their enmity behind them in order to cooperate to bring the Kurds back under the control of Damascus,” he said with caveats regarding the possibility of a working cooperation between Turkey and Syria.
Regardless of an immediate impact on actual policy-making, Mr. Erdogan’s latest remarks represent a watershed moment given how he framed his animosity toward the Syrian leader in personal terms for a long time.
“Still, it is a sensitive issue given Erdogan’s years of attacks on Assad – and vice versa – so I hardly expect any 180-degree turnarounds,” Mr. Lund noted, expressing caution. “But incremental modifications, sure.”
To Mr. Barkey, the shift in President Erdogan’s discourse reveals his pragmatist nature. “In the final analysis, this shows two things,” he said in conclusion.
“First, once again that Erdogan is supremely pragmatic and will change even his most hard-fought positions and abandon allies. Second, how poor U.S.-Turkey cooperation is.”