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For Turkey, Assad is mother of all evils

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Turkey’s unwillingness to join a U.S.-led coalition determined to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, is directly linked to Ankara’s priorities in Syria. Frustrated by the perseverence of the Syrian regime despite an armed insurgency and a tremendous international pressure, any step that could possibly prolong the life of the Syrian president would appear to be unwelcome in Ankara.

Developments in the past three years have demonstrated that Turkey has only limited capability to contain a threat from Syria, with the aid of the NATO-operated Patriot anti-aircraft missile defense system, much less bringing down a regime whose defiance to international pressure is what it has been the best at. Turkey’s limited contribution to topple Syria’s embattled President, Bashar al-Assad, was in the forms of light weapons. Sometimes these weapons were found to have ended up in the hands of radical groups, who later joined the ISIS.

Ankara: ISIS bad, Assad worse

At a time when the ISIS brutality had dominated the world news headlines, the Turkish government was blamed for backing ISIS, and its botched attempts to aid Sunni Turkmens in Syria was seen as an international embarrasment. These allegations put extreme pressure on the Turkish government to join the anti-ISIS coalition.

Rooting out ISIS from Syria was necessary, according to Turkish decision-makers, but it had to be a part of a bigger strategy that also included ousting Assad and achieving a political settlement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has devoted one third of his 12-year-rule to toppling Assad and he would not allow another chance for Assad to re-occupy territories neighboring Turkey. For Ankara, ISIS was bad, but the Syrian regime was much worse.

On the Iraq part of the saga, the strategy seems to be clear: A more moderate government in Baghdad, aided by the coalition forces, is planning to destroy ISIS and extend its authority over the northern and western areas.

Illegitimate butcher

In Syria, forces the West and Turkey wanted to win in the country were also the weakest. The moderate rebels were unable to preserve their territory against ISIS, let alone fight to dethrone Assad. Everyone in the West agreed that though Assad was an illegitimate butcher, his fall would only open the gates of Damascus to ISIS fighters.

For months, Turkey pushed Washington to consider a no-fly zone in northern Syria, a buffer line along the Turkish-Syrian border and generous aid to help arm and equip the moderate rebels.

In a U.S.-led program to arm and equip Syrian rebels, thousands of hand-picked moderate rebels will be trained in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Washington has earmarked $500 million for the program, which includes light weapons. Most of the weapons will be used in offensive moves against the ISIS and it is “forbidden” to use them against the Assad regime. The rebels, however, were told that they could use them only defensively in cases of surprise attacks by Assad forces.

Aleppo’s strategic importance

Rooting out ISIS from Syria was necessary, according to Turkish decision-makers, but it had to be a part of a bigger strategy that also included ousting Assad and achieving a political settlement.

Mahir Zeynalov

Another point of concern for Turkey was the U.S.-led coalition’s reluctance in bombing around Aleppo, which is contested between rebels and the regime forces and is under threat by ISIS.

Possible chaos engulfing Aleppo will unleash an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees toward the Turkish border. Tired of housing the Syrian refugees, Ankara will have only one option left: Carving out a small buffer zone within Syria to shelter the refugees.

Washington initially didn’t consider Kobane, a key town on the Syrian-Turkish border, a strategic priority. A U.S.-led coalition jets, however, mostly focused its air strikes in and around Kobane as the world media turned its attention to the ordeal the town had been going through.

Erdogan repeatedly said Aleppo is much more important than Kobane in strategic calculations and that Obama administration should consider securing Aleppo, rather than Kobane.

Expansion of airstrikes

The disagreements have led to delay in anti-ISIS air campaign along the Turkish border. A recent report has said that the Obama administration had ordered to expand the air strikes along the Turkish border, betting on the aid of Turkish special forces and Ankara’s permission to use its military base in Incirlik. Ankara’s insistence on Aleppo, however, has so far stalled the plan.

According to Erdogan, the root of all the problems in Syria is Assad, who is a magnet for foreign radical fighters. He recently said it is impossible to eliminate the ISIS unless the Assad regime is defeated. Turkey could be a valuable ally and partner for the U.S., only if it is convinced that its help will lead to the destruction of the Syrian regime.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.