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Turkey, Syria, Assad and the deliberate mystery

July 21, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s statements about his country’s desire to improve its relations with Syria are still getting political and media reactions, mainly in the Arab world, especially after he’s been quoted making contradictory statements. The man has repeatedly said that his government intends to improve its relations with a number of countries including Syria. But, while being interviewed by western media, he stressed that improving relations with Damascus will only take place after the departure of Al-Assad. How can one understand these contradictory statements?

One hypothesis says that the man is not an eloquent speaker or a savvy politician who can carefully weigh his words as Erdogan and Davutoglu do, which is to some extent true but not exactly accurate and is not really the reason. Not only because the man is actually a big politician and one of the party’s founders and has been a minister in the government since 2002, but also because this hypothesis requires corrections of his statements.

Another explanation is that Yildirim did not mean what he said but it was rather a slip of the tongue where he meant Russia but said Syria. This was the explanation provided by the Justice and Development party spokesman Yassin Oqtaa during an interview on an Arabic channel. This may apply in relation to one of the statements but cannot be used for the four or five others.

Others have said that he has always meant Syria after Al-Assad but media outlets, especially those against Ankara, misinterpreted his words to mean the acceptance of Al-Assad and his regime. This is not a strong explanation, especially because the statements were repeated over a relatively long period of time, while statements to correct them were issued much laters.

Absence of a context for these statements, whether intentionally or unintentionally, may cause some confusion in the government’s vision. Explaining statements away from their causes, contexts and preludes does not help in clearly understanding reality and/or objectively predicting the future.

The Syrian crisis was one of the main causes of the recent change in Turkish foreign policy. This is because it is the focus of Ankara’s failure in the development and implementation of its vision for a solution, and because Turkey wishes to play a role in it. Thirdly, the Turkish position has shifted over the years from taking initiative to defence, fourth because what is going on is partly reason for punishing and isolating Ankara regionally and internationally and fifth, and most importantly, for its contribution in shaping the political project of the armed Kurdish factions in northern Syria.

The second context which should not be overlooked is that this statement came as part of a series of Turkish positions to turn the conflict around with a large number of regional and international powers such as the UAE, Russia and Israel, and then later there were signs towards Egypt, Iran and Iraq. Therefore, it was not logical to insist that the Turkish position towards the Syrian issue remains the same while its position towards a number of other issues and countries has changed. Also, Syria is the doorway for bilateral relations with Russia.

Turkish-Russian reconciliation, which is going slowly but positively so far, is a convergence between the two parties of their willingness to turn this page. Thus, this convergence with Moscow either came with a price in the Syrian issue (which is the main cause of dispute) or it may later lead to compromises because there is no chance this convergence would succeed if the Russian and Turkish positions are still the same. Compromises would involve some sort of concessions by both parties and not only by one side.

Thus, assessing Yıldırım’s statements in the framework of these reasons, contexts and data bring us to the hypothesis that he deliberately intended for his statements to be ambiguous and have broad ways of interpretation. He did not frankly choose to say that his country is ready to fix relations with Damascus when Al-Assad is ousted, and he could not clearly state that Turkey is willing to normalise relations with his regime. Rather, he left the door open for many possible interpretations and by doing so, sent a message to Russia that his country is not strict, but rather flexible, especially if Moscow would take initiative.

The step that is expected from Moscow of course relates to the fate of Al-Assad, since the latter is not as determined to keep him as Tehran is. It has signalled more than once its readiness to abandon him as part of any transitional solution that ensures its interests. Turkey does not oppose any interim solutions that could fix the regime while not overthrowing it.

It makes no sense to say that it is impossible for Ankara to accept Al-Assad’s survival – albeit temporarily – as it has accepted that implicitly when it settled on the Vienna agreement and the path and outcome of the Geneva negotiations. Those negotiations provided, according to the Russian proposal which was not challenged by the US, for Al-Assad to stay during the transitional period and for the Syrian people to decide his fate in elections that will take place at the end of the transitional stage.

Finally, the priority of standing up to the Kurdish project in northern Syria has an impact on Turkish decision makers. Ankara’s path right now is to cooperate with various parties to limit the spread of this project to its southern borders.

In this context, Ankara communicates with Washington, and is trying hard to speed up reconciliation with Moscow. It is flirting with Tehran and Baghdad, and it is normalising relations with Tel Aviv. There is practically nothing standing in the way of cooperation with Damascus if Turkey decided it needed to, even if it meant going through Iranian and/or Russian mediation, secret channels or back doors, which reports indicate already exist.

In the end, there is no bias against Turkey or any misunderstanding of its leaders’ statements, but rather the statements are themselves ambiguous, and it seems to me that they are intended to be a message to Russia of some kind of agreement regarding the Syrian crisis. Turkey cannot stay out of the picture when it comes to deciding the future of its most important neighbour, as stated by President Erdogan himself when he considered the Turkish Parliament’s decision in 2003 not to allow US troops to use Turkish territories to invade Iraq and not participate in that invasion a mistake that Turkey has paid a high price for and one that he does not want to see repeated in Syria.

Russia also realises that it cannot do without Turkey, and neither can international or regional countries. Turkey is a strong neighbour and regional player and is a side that supports some of the Syrian opposition groups. Details of the agreement cannot be affirmed until they are realised on the ground, and I don’t even think there is a final agreement between the two sides or any others yet.


Translated from the Egyptian Institute for Political and Strategic Studies, 15 July 2016.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.