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Incek Debates: ‘What is the solution to the crisis in Syria? What is a better policy for Turkey?’

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.


‘What is the solution to the crisis in Syria? What is a better policy for Turkey?

Incek Debates, on 28 February 2018, discussed ‘The crisis in Syria’ and searched for a ‘better policy for Turkey’. Speakers were Amb Faruk Loğoğlu, LTG Tahir Bekiroğluand Prof Dr Hasan Ünal (Atılım University). The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmaztürk and was participated by a select group of experts as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is Rapporteur’s Summary of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or of all the participants in consensus. The debate was off-the-record.




Turkey has taken control of sizeable territory west of the Euphrates in Northern Syria, confronted the United States—and Russia—at Manbij, deployed army units at multiple observation points—based, ostensibly, on an understanding reached with radical elements such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—within the Idlib de-escalation zone and launched a new military campaign in Afrin, against PKK-affiliated PYD/YPG. Manbij—west of the Euphrates—controlled by YPG, remains a point of major concern for all involved, particularly for the U.S. and Turkey. ..Meanwhile, Russia accuses the U.S. of “undermining Syria’s territorial integrity” by creating a de facto Kurdish state with autonomous ‘governing bodies’ on vast territories east of the Euphrates. Idlib—as well as Eastern Ghouta—becomes a hot spot with tens of thousands of radical fighters—and millions of civilians—with nowhere to go but Turkey, if a carnage similar to the one in Eastern Ghouta—or earlier in Aleppo—starts there.

On the other hand, Turkey has already formed its own ‘Ikhvan’ state in northern Syria, west of the Euphrates with institutions ranging from municipalities, hospitals, schools to police and the judiciary, thereby making not only the Syrian government but also Iran and Russia increasingly nervous... Turkish Army entered Afrin and took control of the town on 18 March after an eight-week campaign—Olive Branch—four days after the YPG withdrew. ..Displaced persons who had to leave Afrin are already causing headaches and increase international pressure on Turkey.

Turkish army will reportedly continue offensive operations against YPG/PKK forces in Manbij and in the region east of the Euphrates stretching about 400 kilometres along the Turkish-Syrian border reaching up to Qamishli and even into northern Iraq (primarily Sinjar mountain where PKK has been based since 2014) to “remove the [terror] corridor”. “ ..we will continue now to Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobane kur], Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Qamishli (which is still under Damascus’s control) until this corridor is fully removed” said President Erdoğan on 19 March. However, Turkey’s ‘end state’ is still missing.

Executive Summary

The crisis can be traced back to the beginning of the ‘Arab spring’ and in many respects it is the continuation of the crisis in Libya. Balance of force and strategies of the parties are changing constantly, making the final outcome unpredictable. There is no visible end soon.

Contrary to ‘public’ perception, there is a widening rift between Turkey and Russia while the Turkish strategy—and policy decisions—is aligning with the American policy and becoming more supportive of American strategy, to create a federal Syria.

Their fiery statements notwithstanding, Turkish officials give the impression that, in return for the elimination of YPG presence west of the Euphrates river, they would tolerate a Kurdish (not PYD/YPG) ‘Rojava’ under American protection—which would necessarily exist side by side with the de facto Turkish ‘protectorate’ stretching from the Euphrates to Idlib.

There are two approaches to ‘federalism’. Liberals argue that ‘as long as it is supported by the Syrian parties’, federalism is an option—whatever the mid-to-long term consequences may be. However, for the realists, potential consequences have to be judged against vital national interests, before adopting—or reviewing the ‘policy’. It is believed that federalism would not actually work in Syria, but would only be a temporary, transitionary stage towards an independent ‘greater’ Kurdistan and division of Syria.

There is a critical difference between what is desired unilaterally and what is possible multilaterally. The solution to the Syria crisis needs key leaders shift their mind sets from zero-sum to win-win. Otherwise there is no chance of resolution. It can only get worse.

The deep polarization in both politics and the society handicaps Turkish foreign policy. There is no ‘national’ consensus over policies that would best serve Turkish national interests and Turkish foreign policy mechanisms have been reduced to a single ultimate decisionmaker.

Turkey has to make a critical decision on the future of Syria and align itself with either Russia and work for a unified Syria OR the U.S. (i.e. the West) and work for a federal Syria—ideally with both if possible. This decision is long overdue.

Turkey cannot ignore the ‘Kurdish question’ any longer and hide behind vague statements. This issue has to be dealt with head-on, beyond threats or ambiguous political rhetoric; in the form of an agreed-upon national policy.

Turkey needs to be part of the solution NOT the problem. It should replace ‘obsession’ with ousting Bashar al-Assad with ‘rationality’, improve cooperation with other countries in the region, define the political end state in Syria and the exit strategy, stop acting as if it is gradually annexing parts of Syrian territory.



Who wants what?

To the Syrian government, all opposition forces are ‘terrorists’ aiming to overthrow the only legitimate government. Syria wants to defeat all armed groups that do not recognize Bashar al-Assad government as the legitimate authority and to remove all foreign forces that are in Syria without its approval and/or invitation.

It is clear what Russia wants—and they clearly state it. Russia supports the regime in Damascus and aims to re-establish it. They blame the U.S. and the West of ‘creating alternative authorities in Syria’ and ‘engaging directly in the warfare’. They reject “even [the] talk about a potential partition of Syria’ and consider it their duty “that these plans be immediately foiled”.

It is clear what the United States wants—but they don’t clearly state it. According to Secretary Tillerson, the U.S. aims “to achieve a stable, unified, and independent Syria”. They undertake steps to bring ‘stability’ and peace to Syria by ‘de-escalating’ the overall conflict.

…However, American political and military actions—and fiscal plans—suggest that what they describe as ‘stabilization’ and ‘de-escalation’ tantamounts, to a significant degree to state-building (for Kurds) and regime change in Syria. Although they maintain that they “hear and take seriously the concerns of Turkey”, state-building in northeast Syria—and even in north Iraq—brings the U.S. into conflict with Turkey—or, at least this is the impression given to the Turkish government. …

It is NOT clear what Turkey wants—and they don’t state it. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, “There (was) no other country in the region and beyond, supporting Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty more than Turkey”. However, Turkish ‘officials’ and the military—even rank and file—keep referring to ‘real owners’ to turn the ‘Syrian’ territory taken from ISIL or YPG/PKK over to. ‘Real owners’ obviously means some entity other than the ‘Syrian’ government in Damascus.

How the ‘unity’ of Syria as we’ve known it, under such circumstances, can possibly be preserved—or restored—remains an open question. Oft-repeated wording by Turkish officials that administration and security of the areas taken from PYD/YPG would be determined by the bizarre concept of demographics as ‘the key criteria’ worries other countries as well as the Syrian government—and its allies, Russia and Iran as well as Iraq.

All are for a stable, unified, and independent Syria, territorial integrity intact.. But this appearance of ‘unity’ is false. They differ in details. It all comes down to the question of unitary versus federal Syria..

Russia, Iran—and naturally the Syrian government—are against a federal scheme which would lead to a semi-autonomous ‘principalities’ and dismemberment of Syria in the mid-to-long term. Turkey gives the impression that it is ready to live with a federal Syria and to tolerate Rojava within it, IF protectorates it has created are overlooked.  If this is in the interest of Turkey is another matter.


Bottom line

The United States and the Turkish executive would do well coming to terms with the reality on the ground, come to their senses and give up nation-building and regime change in Syria.


The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.

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