Turkey's constrained military and inward focus could soften its 'Assad must go' policy.
Turkey has been shaken to its core by an attempted military coup. In the aftermath, the government is likely to be inward-looking, limited by capacity constraints and a hobbled administration, and less focused than ever on efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
This could represent an important turn in efforts to quell the Syria conflict, with Ankara willing to adopt a new middle way forward, particularly on the Assad question. Whether an intentional strategic shift or an indirect consequence of an all-consuming internal focus, this shift may pave the way for a new international convergence behind the priority of de-escalation, instead of the goal of securing Assad’s near-term removal.
A Regional re-balancing
Turkish foreign policy was already in a state of flux prior to the attempted coup. Over the past month Ankara had begun returning to a “zero problems with neighbours” policy. It mended fences with Israel and Russia and had already been reconsidering its long-standing approach to Syria. That approach demanded that Assad stand aside and involved the provision of significant Turkish support to the armed opposition.
With President Erdogan now focused on responding to the threat supposedly posed by the Gulen movement that he has accused of instigating the failed coup, this rebalancing could well be accelerated. There is likely to be far less desire and ability to remain mired in a debilitating regional conflict, particularly given the capacity constraints on the military front that will follow the ongoing purge. This has already resulted in the arrest of a third of the Turkish military’s general officers, many of whom were involved in the leadership of the anti-IS and –Kurdish campaigns.
There is likely to be far less desire and ability to remain mired in a debilitating regional conflict, particularly given the capacity constraints on the military front that will follow the ongoing purge.
Both of those campaigns are now seen as more pressing security concerns than that posed by Assad and this reality is likely to hasten Erdogan’s desire to extricate himself from the Syria morass, despite his long-held personal commitment to seeing Assad deposed. To be sure, Ankara will continue to want to shape its immediate neighborhood, but the cost of removing Assad compared with other more immediate concerns may force it to give way on the Syria front.
The international fallout from the attempted coup could further encourage this trend. It has worsened already-rocky US-Turkish relations, with Ankara furious at Washington’s unwillingness to hand over the Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan suspects that the US knew about the coup in advance (given the plotters’ use of the Incirlik air base) and no longer trusts his NATO partners, including European governments, which he believes wanted the coup to succeed.
While Turkish-Russian ties are subject to their own uncertainties, this deterioration of relations with Western powers could accelerate a Turkish-Russian rapprochement. President Putin offered rapid support for Erdogan as the coup attempt unfolded, in contrast with the West’s perceived hesitancy. Russian influence in Syria may also be seen as a more effective means of securing Turkey’s interests on the Kurdish front given ongoing US military support for Kurds fighting IS.
The regional picture remains murky. Erdogan viewed Saudi Arabia as being slow to back his government, particularly compared to the swift Iranian show of support. In many respects the recent Turkish-Saudi alignment (in which Riyadh effectively subcontracted much of its policy in northern Syria to Turkey) was always one of tactical convergence rather than deeper strategic partnership. The two countries fell out strongly over the course of the Arab uprisings, supporting competing Islamist movements, reflecting deep-seated competition for leadership of the Sunni world. Some in Ankara have suggested that Riyadh’s initial reticence to condemn the coup reflected unhappiness with Turkey’s incipient shift in Syria policy. The Saudis remain unwilling to back down in Syria, which they view as the front line in their regional proxy war with Iran.
For its part, Tehran has long viewed Turkey as a key actor in any eventual Syria settlement. They see Ankara as more pragmatic than Riyadh, and now hope to use post-coup unease to draw the country into a deal-making mood on Syria. Like Moscow, Tehran may look to trade a united crackdown on Kurdish ambitions for a softening of Ankara’s position on Assad and a curtailing of support for the Syrian opposition across the Syrian-Turkish border. This step would block the key strategic gateway into Syria and dramatically reduce the possibility of ongoing armed support to the opposition.
Opening for convergence on Syria?
Even as US-Turkish ties look set to deteriorate, these shifts may in fact bring them into closer alignment on the Syria question. Washington has long been looking for a means of de-escalating the conflict, principally through partnership with Russia. It has been significantly held back by Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s opposition and on the ground counter-escalations. A shift by Turkey could now alter this dynamic, creating openings for wider international convergence. In the current context, marked by strong Russian military backing for the Syrian regime, any deal would almost inevitably have to leave Assad in place in some capacity, at least for the foreseeable future.
Even as US-Turkish ties look set to deteriorate, these shifts may in fact bring them into closer alignment on the Syria question.
Clearly, though, this convergence would take place alongside a broader deterioration in Turkish-US/NATO ties that will complicate any such efforts. But despite this deterioration, Turkey is unlikely to walk away from the Western-led international coalition fighting IS. It may, if anything, look to strengthen this link to minimize the impact of its own capacity constraints and IS’ ability to exploit Turkey’s internal weakness. The rapid resumption of military operations from Incirlik, after a short disruption following coup efforts out of the base, suggests as much.
What does it mean for Europe?
Just last week an E3 paper on Syria by France, Germany and the UK restated the case for a full and near-term transition away from Assad, accompanied by deep and wide-ranging democratic and security sector reform. The paper once again highlighted Europe’s long-standing detachment from the internal and international dynamics surrounding the conflict, where the prospect of such an outcome is more distant than ever.
Against this backdrop European governments should see a possible Turkish shift on Syria as an opportunity to forge a more realistic policy of its own, aimed first and foremost at stemming the level of violence and advancing a desperately needed humanitarian track. Turkish acceptance, whether direct or implicit, of a middle way solution that possibly leads Assad in place should encourage European governments to put aside some of their own more forward-leaning ambitions. A more pragmatic approach could significantly increase the chances of achieving the international consensus needed to underpin a sustained de-escalation in Syria.
European governments should see a possible Turkish shift on Syria as an opportunity to forge a more realistic policy of its own
As part of this approach European governments could play an important bridging role, potentially representing a more attractive Western channel to Ankara given US-Turkish tensions. The E3+EU, in particular, should seek alignment with Ankara on a Syria position that embraces a new pragmatism on the Assad question, but resists attempts at a narrower Turkish-Russian-Iranian deal, in part by continuing to represent legitimate opposition concerns.
Meanwhile, European governments should also look to intensify military and intelligence cooperation with Turkey in the fight against IS. A weakened Turkey will enhance the ability of IS fighters to plan and travel towards Europe to execute attempted attacks. Even as the Turkish army is incapacitated, European states must look to strengthen those channels that are still functioning. This cooperation should simultaneously be seen as an important means of keeping a critical relationship on track, given Erdogan’s distrust of NATO partners and the likelihood that European criticism of some elements of Turkey’s internal crackdown will introduce further strains into the relationship.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.