Turkey: Towards a New Policy on Syria?

Sinan Baykent

Political Analyst, Turkey


On August 13th PM Yıldırım announced – tough indirectly – a potential shift of Turkish official stance on Syria. “Don’t be surprised if very important developments regarding Syria occur within next six months,” the PM said.

Last month Yıldırım already stated that Turkey needed to “normalize relations with Syria”, thus creating an enormous surprise among media analysts.

Even if President Erdoğan remains silent on the issue for now, Yıldırım’s insistence on an eventual “normalization process” indicates official authorities’ will to change current state of affairs.

Until the attempted coup of July 15th, Turkish policy on Syria was literally paralyzed for mainly two reasons. First, intransigence displayed by US officials regarding their alliance with Kurdish forces to defeat ISIS and second, total absence of diplomatic ties with Russia fighting both ISIS and Syrian opposition.

Whereas the attempted coup of July 15th allowed Turkish authorities to distance themselves from the Western world by criticizing its ambiguous reactions towards the armed uprising of terrorist organization FETÖ, the meeting between Erdoğan and Putin in St. Petersburg on August 9th enabled Turkish-Russian cooperation on Syria.

Each crisis discloses an important number of opportunities. Hence, the crisis of July 15th had its own opportunities and reactivation of Turkish-Russian ties was one of them.

In fact, Turkish-Russian bilateral relations were already boosted in mid-June when Erdoğan sent a reconciliation letter to Putin.

It is no coincidence if Yıldırım made such a statement on Syria in July following the letter Erdoğan addressed to Putin.

But why exactly Yıldırım wanted to insert the Syrian issue in talks that occurred last week between Erdoğan and Putin? What is the main diplomatic goal behind this sudden desire to shift Syrian policy?

The Raison d’État commands Turkish statesmen to preserve at all costs the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic. With the well-established autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and actual circumstances in Turkish-Syrian borders with the tour de force of YPG elements, Turkey’s priorities have changed. Henceforth, number one priority of Turkish officials is not to defeat Assad but to prevent a PKK-sponsored state in Syria.

As US Special Forces are actually fighting alongside of YPG forces, Turkey rationally turned to Russia for an agreement on Assad’s fate. However an emphasis should be laid on the fact that preventing such a “sponsored” state to be formed will certainly require important concessions from the Turkish side.

Russia can incite Assad to cut off ties with YPG and pursue an aggressive policy against them if Turkey shows its willingness to stop financing and supporting groups linked to Syrian opposition.

The choice has already been made, one might say. AK Party is reconsidering its Sunni-centered Syrian policy in favor of a national interest-centered one. But is the ruling party fully prepared to sacrifice its long-dated Muslim allies in Syria along with the US? The answer to this focal question will be decisive.

Sinan Baykent


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