It is all quiet on the Western front. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was stagnant and vague on foreign policy matters, especially on Syria. That he made no indication about President Bashar al-Assad’s future at all was a sharp departure from last year’s speech when he had expressed confidence that Assad’s end was coming soon. The very next day, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his intention to use his first foreign trip, expected to cover the Middle East later this month, to develop new ideas about how to persuade Assad to agree to a political transition. This obvious shift appears to reflect the moderation in the U.S.’ expectations for change in Syria and a surrender to making Assad part of the solution.
Assad is still a factor in the equation not only among global powers, but also in his own country. Stuck in the stalemate of his country, the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, repeated last week that he was prepared to talk directly with representatives of the Syrian regime. Washington has also signaled that it is strongly supportive of peace talks between the two sides. Even though some members of the National Coalition accused Khatib of treachery and there is no sign yet that Assad is paying any more than lip service to dialogue, it is almost certain that Assad will become part of the solution process.
It seems that there remains only Turkey along with two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that are stubbornly insisting on excluding Assad from the equation. In the early phase of the Syria conflict, Turkey was in the company of many countries in terms of this stance, especially the United States. But governments, including Washington, caved in to the facts on the ground, complying with Darwin’s golden rule: The species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt to the changing environment. That Turkey has insisted on Assad’s isolation has not only made the country appear sectarian and on the side of the jihadists and turned the crisis into a bilateral conflict, but also excluded it from the solution process. The facilitators of the prospective peace talks seem to have become Russia and Iran.
It is a pity that Ankara missed the role out there waiting to be picked up by Turkey. Turkey’s choice has never been between supporting the ruling authoritarian elites or the opposition; nor did it have to choose between taking a pro-regime stance or a confrontational attitude. Instead of cutting all bilateral ties with the regime and getting over-engaged just with one side, Turkey should have engaged with all sides. Relying on its greatest strength, its unique soft power, it could have played a “constructive leadership” role by initiating and leading regional and international cooperation on Syria.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American writer, once said: “In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.” We are certainly skating on super-thin ice. So Turkey has to be super-fast in adjusting its tactics. The ice is just about to crack. Hurry up.
Verda Özer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Defense Academy of the U.K. and an international security expert. She works as a program manager at the Columbia Global Center Turkey and the German Marshall Fund of the United States and writes for the Hurriyet Daily News. She can be found on Twitter: @Verda_Ozer