A success of diplomatic effort in Syria will have great impact on the neighboring countries, especially Turkey. Formally, President Tayyip Erdogan supports the Russia-US initiative, but does so grudgingly. Yes, it goes against the grain, but there is a range of reasons he cannot openly oppose it. The endorsement is expressed with too many reservations; it’s clear the Turkish leadership is reluctant in what it is doing.
Erdogan said he feared the ceasefire plan would do little more than benefit Assad. Turkey has grown increasingly frustrated over the international response to the Syrian war, in particular US support for a Kurdish militia it sees as a hostile insurgent force. Ankara is also incensed by a Russian military operation that has tipped the balance of power in favor of its arch-enemy Assad.
Actually, the US-Russian plan for a ceasefire in Syria has been heavily criticized by the Turkish President, who claims it will really only serve to benefit the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
«We endorse a ceasefire that would relieve Syrian brothers», said Recep Tyyip Erdogan. «But it’s worrying to see that with this ceasefire Assad’s regime, responsible for the killing of more than a half million people, and the powers who are backing him, receive open support while a hesitant tone is taken towards the opposition». Erdogan also accused the West, Russia and Iran of «permitting, directly or indirectly, the killing of innocent people».
«If this is a ceasefire that is up to the mercy of Russia, which has brutally attacked the moderate opposition and aligned with Assad under the pretext of fighting Islamic State, we fear that the fire pouring over innocent people will never stop», Erdogan said in a televised speech.
Erdogan says Syrian Kurdish militia must be excluded from ceasefire.
He knows well it can’t be done. The Syrian Kurds are the only combat capable ground force, supported by Russia and the US, to fight the Islamic State.
Obviously, the Turkish President is in predicament.
The downing of Russian combat aircraft last November and the Russia-US-brokered peace accord stymie his plans. By spoiling the relations with Russia, Erdogan diminished his influence on the situation in Syria. Actually, the Russia-US agreement on Syria made Turkey irrelevant.
The Turkish government was dead sure Syrian President Assad was doomed to go with the country to be partitioned. It could have provided an opportunity to annex the areas near the border populated by Syrian Turks and annihilate any chances for Kurdish autonomy, or even an independent state, in the northern part of Syria. Turkey believes that with the Kurdish autonomy already established in Iraq, Syrian Kurdish autonomy would pose a threat by instigating protests among the Kurdish minority inside country.
In theory, Erdogan could have started talks with Russia, the US and Syria on the future status of Syrian Kurdistan. This chance has been missed as a result of Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Syrian Assad-led government and the deterioration of relations with Moscow. The US views the Kurds as allies to counter the Islamic State. Now the Turkish President has no tools to impact the events inside Syria. A military operation against the Kurds is an extremely costly and risky thing. The possibility of such an operation without US support and with the Russian military operation underway is almost zilch. With jihadists routed, formation a zone controlled by Kurds and the Syrian military along the Turkish border becomes a nightmare for the Turkish leadership.
Turkey’s Prime Minister is accusing Russia and Syria, along with Islamic State militants and US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, of attempts to form a «terror belt» along its border with Syria and says his country won’t let it happen. In the weekly address to legislators from his ruling party on February 23, Ahmet Davutoglu said the aim is to establish a terror «structure» – made up of the Islamic State group and the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia group YPG (the People's Protection Units) in the Syria’s north. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its links to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish rebels.
«Turkey is aware of these games aiming to make Turkey a neighbor with a terror structure and will not allow it», Davutoglu said.
Ankara is sure that this scenario will result in internal unrest and instability caused by Turkish Kurds. The support for anti-Assad forces is the only way to deal with it. Turkey provides logistical aid to Syria armed opposition and terrorist groups. It delivers artillery strikes across the border. It won’t last forever. If anti-Assad forces do not abide by the Russia-US truce agreement, the combat actions will continue to make the Syrian troops advance to the border.
A big war with Turkey is the last thing the Kurds want, it’s not on the today’s agenda. But one never knows. It could become a remote possibility if Turkey enjoyed good relations with the neighboring states which have Kurdish minorities: Syria, Iraq and Iran. These countries share the concern over the prospects of creating a Kurdish independent state. But today neither of these countries is a friend of Turkey.
The strategic partnership with Russia could prevent the scenario. But Turkey has deprived itself of this option.
Russia is not playing a Kurdish card. It views the Syrian Kurds as allies of the Syrian government in the fight against the Islamic State group. If President Erdogan apologized for the downing of the Russian plane last November, the relationship could have been normalized. As a result, Ankara could broaden the window of opportunities and increase its clout as an actor taking part in the process of determining Syria’s future. By shooting down the Russian aircraft, Turkey cut off its nose to spite the face. It could still rectify the wrongdoing until it’s too late.