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Michael Young

In through the out door

Turkey may have already changed on Assad’s future

This picture taken around 5 kilometers west from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 shows Turkish Army tanks driving to the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarablus. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Turkey’s entry into the Middle East in recent years has been characterized by consistency. The country has been consistently reckless and disconcerting. That is why the position of the Turkish government today with regard to Syria is so open to question. No one is quite sure what the Turks are really saying.

 

And what are they saying? Amid ongoing contacts between Turkey, Russia, and Iran to try to find a formula to end the Syrian conflict, the Turks continue to repeat that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office. But like many other statements of principle directed at the Syrian leader, this one has few chances of being implemented. Before long, expect the Turks to surreptitiously abandon the matter of Assad’s future.

 

The conventional wisdom is that Assad can no longer remain the president of a country he has spent five years obliterating. But the question is why not? Morally, such a statement makes sense, but in terms of power politics it is meaningless. Russia and Iran have invested considerable effort to ensure that the Syrian leader is not toppled. Today they have the upper hand, no matter how widespread is the opposition to his rule. Assad may be far from winning, but the latitude of his enemies to impose his departure has declined even more precipitously.

 

A turning point came in July, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to Russia for the downing of a Russian warplane last November. What the development signaled was that Erdogan was willing to normalize relations with Assad’s main military backer, whom he chose to characterize as Turkey’s “friend and strategic partner.”

 

To cover for this rapprochement, the Turks have continued to insist that the Syrian president must leave office, even as the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, recently made a major concession by implying that Assad might remain during a transitional phase: “We may sit and talk [with Assad] for the transition … [But] could Syria carry Assad in the long-term? Certainly not. The United States knows and Russia knows that Assad does not appear to be someone who can bring [Syrians] together.”

 

Perhaps they both do know, but neither of them has done anything whatsoever to get rid of Assad. Even as the international chorus has risen that the Syrian president is finished, the anti-Assad coalition has slowly disintegrated. It is fair to say that among Syria’s immediate Arab neighbors, for instance, not one still seeks an Assad exit.

 

Part of the reason for this is that in the past two years there has been considerable fear of what might happen if Assad’s fall left behind a vacuum in Syria. The prevailing anxiety was that it would be filled by jihadists, above all the so-called Islamic State. Today, with the Islamic State suffering reversals all over Syria and Iraq, such fears have receded. Yet the reality is that no one is willing to test the Syrian waters again by pushing harder against the regime. There simply is no longer any will for that.

 

Meanwhile, Turkey and Assad’s other foes are caught up in their own debilitating trials and tribulations. The Turks are focused on the Kurdish threat, while the Saudis remain prisoners of the Yemen conflict, even as the kingdom begins struggling with an economic transformation due to low global oil prices.

 

Turkey’s entry into Syria this week may seem to represent a shift in the Syrian situation. The Turks had long threatened to create a security zone inside Syrian territory, and now they have the possibility of doing so. Maybe, but the Turkish focus is less on Assad than on ensuring that there is no geographical continuity between Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria and the Afrin area to the northwest of Aleppo. In this Ankara has had American support, with Vice President Joe Biden warning the Kurds on Wednesday that they would risk losing Washington’s backing if they did not withdraw east of the Euphrates. 

 

It seems unlikely that Erdogan will endanger his improved ties with Russia and Iran, as well as with the United States, by using his army’s new deployment in Syria as a lever to press for Assad’s removal. The potential dangers in this are too many, and if Turkey has been consistent in one regard, it is in its refusal to be drawn directly into the Syrian military quagmire.

 

However, does this imply that Turkey has retreated vis-à-vis Assad? Not necessarily. Yet it has so changed with regard to the countries propping up the Syrian president, as well as toward the broader political context in Syria, that Assad may have become almost secondary in Turkish preoccupations. That is why one shouldn’t be surprised if the Turkish reversal on Russia and Iran quietly transforms itself into a reversal on the demand that Assad quit office. Indeed, we may already be there. 

 

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

This picture taken around 5 kilometers west from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 shows Turkish Army tanks driving to the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarablus. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

It seems unlikely that Erdogan will endanger his improved ties with Russia and Iran, as well as with the United States, by using his army’s new deployment in Syria as a lever to press for Assad’s removal.

  • Israel Loves Lebanon

    Very interesting insight

    August 30, 2016

  • Beiruti

    This is time for a reality check on Syria and Assad's future. Assad will not be forced from office as long as he can deploy force to remain in office. Assad will not voluntarily give up power, no autocrat ever has. American policy to remove Assad based on the assumed reality that " Assad does not appear to be someone who can bring Syrians together" is false. Assad never governed Syria by "bringing Syrians together" so why should that now be the litmus test for his ability to stay in power? Syria was a brutal dictatorship held together by the Syrian intelligence and security forces, rather than by voluntary consensus. Assad, Russia's and Iran's bet is that they can put down the opposition and reimpose dictatorial control over the county. The only way to get Assad out of power is by force, to physically remove him and take him to The Hague and try him for war crimes. However, experience in Libya and Iraq with removal of long term dictators has not been good. Both countries fell apart and into anarchy, in the case of Libya and to Iran in the case of Iraq. So if we remove Assad, then we own Syria and will have to govern it. Obama does not want to do this and I expect neither will Clinton or Trump, whoever wins in the US. Putin surely does not and would rather keep Assad there as a loyal client as would Khamaeni. So the likely outcome -- the US will prevail against ISIS and then once the rebellion is manageable, Syria will be turned back over to Assad to put the lid on and keep it on. This is the result of a decision made by President Obama in August 2013 when he did not intervene at a time when the moderate FSA could have turned the tide and ended the war after only 1 year. That opportunity passed and will not come back. It is the price for Presidential indecision at a critical point.

    August 25, 2016

  • RM2015

    True

    August 26, 2016