29.11.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Syrian End-Game: An Albatross Around Turkish Neck?


While the Syrian end-game is only beginning to take pace, as the latest Sochi summit showed unambiguously, what can also be seen on the horizon is that the unfolding of this game is making certain regional countries, particularly Turkey, uncomfortable. If Turkey’s prime interest in Syria was to permanently settle the Kurdish question, this objective has not been achieved in a manner Turkey would have ideally wanted. Kurdish groups remain strong in Syria, and to Turkey’s disadvantage neither Russia nor US see them as their enemy; hence, the continued friction, making Turkey—once again—look like the sick man of Europe. What is adding to Turkey’s worries is the dualism it has been following vis-à-vis Russia and the US. On the one hand, it remains a NATO member, and on the other hand, Erdogan’s entente with Russia is being seen as a red line by its NATO allies, pushing them to use the ‘NATO-eviction card’ against Turkey, leaving it with little to no option to influence the final outcome of the Syrian end-game.

The friction on Kurdish question became evident right after the conclusion of recent summit in Sochi when Erdogan ruled out—yet again—any possibility of accommodating Kurdish factions, the PYD and YPG, in the Syrian end-game. “We discussed the issue of the Syria national dialogue congress in detail. We, as three countries, will decide on who will be invited to the congress” said Erdogan after the summit, adding further that Turkey’s position on “terrorist organizations such as the YPG and the PYD is clear.”

What it shows is that despite two years of military co-operation in Syria, Turkey’s obsession with the Kurdish question remains a major hurdle in the way of transforming its relations with Russia into a strategic alliance. Let’s not forget here that the Syrian Kurds were where Turkey and the US had diverged, pushing the former into rapprochement with Moscow. However, beyond calculated co-operation in Syria, Turkey-Russia relations still remain a limited affair—and, as Erdogan indicated after the summit, Kurdish question remains unsettled even when intense dialogue has been going on in Astana and Sochi for quite some time now.

Notwithstanding the friction, Turkey is still engaged in negotiations with Russia and Erdogan has already indicated his willingness to ‘keep all political options open.’ But that explains only a part of Erdogan’s worries in Syria and the region on the whole. A lot of it is also due to what the US is doing in Syria, and to Turkey.

For example, there is as yet no evidence that the US is going to or will withdraw from Syria and  leave the military bases set up in the territories recaptured by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which Kurds are an integral part. The US support for Kurdish forces, therefore, continues to be seen as a “red line” by Ankara.

Ankara’s position on this highly contentious issue was made abundantly clear in a piece Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesperson and adviser, wrote for Daily Sabah. He wrote:

“the misguided policy of supporting the PKK’s Syria branch will only weaken Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity that is expected to be achieved at the end of the current Geneva and Astana processes and also continue to pose a national security threat to neighboring countries. We are yet to see the U.S. keeping its promise of cutting relations with the PYD-YPG after clearing Raqqa of Daesh.”

And he continues further saying, “The question of the PYD-YPG remains a red line for Turkey. They cannot be part of any political solution because they are the PKK in Syria, a terrorist organization designated as such by Turkey, the U.S., Europe and others. It is disrespectful, to say the least, to the Syrian people to present them as representatives of Syrian Kurds.”

But the way Turkey-US relations have evolved ever since Turkey’s entente with Russia reveal that the US wouldn’t deliver on its “promise.” Apart from regional geo-politics, elsewhere in the US, the FBI has opened a file to implicate Erdogan, his family members and his close circle in a scam that involves Turkey’s state bank for trading with Iran and stands accused of violating US sanctions and breaking the US banking laws. A negative verdict in the US federal court can not only lead to criminal charges against Erdogan and key associates, but also pave the way for US sanctions against Turkey and even possible eviction from NATO.

While such actions may further drift Turkey towards Moscow, it is obvious that, given the state of affairs, Turkey can hardly expect from the US any concession in terms of forcing the Kurdish factions back to their pre-war political position. And, it is this crucial distance, roots of which can be traced back to a failed coup attempt, between two NATO allies that has largely forced Turkey to embrace Russia and Iran to protect its interests in Syria.

But this embrace hasn’t led to an absolute materialization of Turkey’s crucial interests. With Russia holding the Kurdish card, there is little left for the ‘sick man of Europe’ to manipulate and control in the Syrian end-game. The only silver lining for Turkey is that Moscow understands its concerns—and the fact that Moscow values its relations with Ankara, for at stake here is not just Syria or Kurds but Russia’s own larger counter-manoeuvers against anti-Russia Western alliance, sitting on its door steps.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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