As Russia raises the stakes in Syria, what role can Turkey now play?
'Turkey has a valuable contribution to bring to the efforts on a political settlement in Syria'
The Russian government announced last week that Syria peace talks will begin in October just after the U.N. General Assembly with the participation of Russia, United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt as the “most influential outside players.”
Although the level of representation at the contact group is not decided yet, it is expected that the group will be working with expert and ministerial levels, along with the presence of U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Being the strongest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia's ever-increasing engagement in Syria - through expanding its military footprint in Syria over the past month – has been harshly condemned by the anti-Assad countries.
On Oct 1, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom and the U.S. released a Joint Declaration on recent military actions of the Russian Federation on Syria.
“These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization. We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL,” the statement read, in reference to the militant group ISIS.
The Turkish government recently expressed “deep concern” about Russia’s remarkable military buildup and expansion of its presence in Syria.
“They have taken [it] into the field. This is very dangerous. Therefore, we watch it with deep concern. God willing Russia will not insist on ways and methods that will increase the tension,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a televised interview late Sept. 21.
For many, having the most influential countries on the Syrian issue meeting around a table is of greater importance to resolve the deeply-rooted problem in a peaceful and negotiated manner. And, Turkey has key roles to assume in this process.
Finding a solution
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst for the Silk Road Studies Program, a Central Asia research center in Washington DC and Stockholm, said any attempt by the international community to become more actively engaged in trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria is welcome, provided that they are genuinely committed to finding a solution.
“So far, we have seen a lot of handwringing and tokenism – such as the air campaign against ISIS -- but no real attempt to formulate a serious strategy to end the war, much less commitment to the resources that would be necessary to make a solution work,” Jenkins told Al Arabiya News.
Jenkins noted that although it is difficult to see how the likely parties in the talks can agree on a solution, the hope is that they will at last begin to focus on trying to find real answers.
“Turkey’s policy towards Syria has clearly failed and the country is likely to be paying the price – in terms of the damage to its prestige, increased security risks and the economic and social burdens of hosting two million refugees – for many years to come,” he said.
According to Jenkins, before sitting on the Syrian peace talks table, Turkey needs to come up with a completely new policy towards Syria that is based on the current situation in the country and prioritizes trying to put an end to civilian suffering, rather than seeing the civil war as an opportunity to demonstrate the regional strength of its leadership.
But, international actors have shifting attitudes in Syria’s political transition process. Ankara, as the most candid outlier in the contact group, intends to avoid Assad from having a role in the upcoming period.
However, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently emphasized that the exact timing of Assad’s exit from power should be determined through negotiations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called leaders to have Assad in peace talks.
“It doesn’t have to be one day one or month one. There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved,” Kerry said on Sept. 18 during a press conference.
Alptekin Dursunoglu, an Istanbul-based independent expert on Syria politics, said the inclusion of Turkey into the Syria peace talks derives from the practical roles it can assume in the implementation of the decisions that will be taken during the negotiations.
He noted that “the regional threat being posed by ISIS has prioritized the anti-terrorism efforts” and following the Jeddah meeting on 12 September 2014, the Friends of Syria Group joined the anti-terrorism coalition led by the U.S. rather than focusing on regime change in the country.
“The end of the Syrian conflict depends on reaching an agreement for a political settlement,” Dursunoglu told Al Arabiya News.
According to the expert, one of the primary roles of Turkey during these peace talks should be to end its tacit logistical support to the armed groups in Syria.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM, told Al Arabiya News that the Russian build up in Syria has the potential to shape a new initiative for a political settlement to the conflict by changing the balance of forces on the ground.
According to Ulgen, Russia’s military support to the Assad regime will preempt any interventionist plans like safe zones or no fly zones and therefore will force major stakeholders to focus on prospects of a political settlement.
He also noted that Western states will be forced, somewhat begrudgingly, to accept the inevitability of a role for Assad, at least during the transition phase.
“These developments are also a setback for Ankara’s policy of demanding Assad’s removal from power as precondition to a political settlement,” Ulgen said.
“Nonetheless Turkey has a valuable contribution to bring to the efforts on a political settlement in Syria. Provided that all the stakeholders can agree on the main principles for rejuvenating the Geneva process, Turkey can help to influence a range of actors within the Syrian opposition to take part in these talks. As a result, the process will be more inclusive and gain more legitimacy,” he added.
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