Politics is at times compared to a game with Machiavellian actors and rogue figures who are out only for themselves. A former British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston once said: “We have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” This is an adage many in international politics still follow, though it is concerning that his words are taken quite so literally more than 160 years later and after so much has changed in the world.
In a similar vein, the recently revealed news that Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, met his Syrian counterpart came as an unwelcome surprise to the Syrian people and even his admission that it was a brief and informal meeting on the sidelines of the Non Aligned Movement Summit in Belgrade last October, did little to ease concerns of normalisation. The word Cavusoglu used was “reconciliation” between the Syrian Regime and Opposition which was particularly concerning. Reconciliation implies forgiveness, it indicates that parties are willing to move on and go forward. The Regime and the Opposition cannot simply reconcile. Bashar Al-Assad is the biggest terrorist in the region, and has killed far more than Daesh and the PKK combined over the past 11 years of the conflict. Talk of reconciliation legitimises Al-Assad. It also goes against United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 which stipulates that a political transition takes place. Any attempt to reconcile with Al-Assad renders a transition futile.
It’s also strange that this was only disclosed recently, though it took place nearly a year ago. Why did Cavusoglu not raise it then? Is Russia pressuring Turkiye to take a more active role and step up? It’s no secret that Turkiye views the separate terrorist Kurdish group PKK as an existential threat to it and this has meant that any interest it has taken in Syria lately has been under the banner of stopping the group as opposed to combatting the Assad Regime which it has been such a strong critic of in the past. Syria’s territorial integrity is now Turkiye’s main priority, and stopping Al-Assad is secondary.
This is not the case for the Syrian people who continue to see Al-Assad as the root of the problem. Turkiye – understandably to an extent – sees the creation of an independent Kurdish state that has broken away from Syria as a precursor for things to come. Therefore, there is a real concern that the Democratic Union Party (known also as PYD) and its forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are making further in-roads in North Eastern Syria and already control territory in the area. There is added irony that the SDF are working with the Assad Regime meaning that the Regime is playing both sides; and succeeding.
Over the past few weeks, Turkiye has tried and failed to block Finland and Sweden from attaining NATO membership on the basis that they harboured PKK opposition figures so they’ve been working with Russia on the Kurdish issue. And whilst it still doesn’t seem to have the green light yet to perform a military operation, this hasn’t dissuaded it from making threats.
Accountability is crucial. Reconciliation with Al-Assad means that is no longer the case. Those who have committed crimes must be made to face their victims as Nazi war criminals did in Nuremberg. Had they not, and had Nazi figures remained in a post war Germany, perpetrators would not have been punished. This is the same for Syria and justice cannot happen without accountability. This has even led over the last couple of days to protests against Turkiye in the north-west region which is not under Regime control as well as the regular anti-Assad protests which continue to take place.
Moreover, Turkiye has even lost its own soldiers due to the Syrian Regime’s actions. These are not the actions of a state that will reconcile and act in good faith. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t solve his security problems by even thinking about working with Al-Assad, who is unpredictable and has presided over crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated at an industrial scale.
When the Syrian uprising started in 2011 and world leaders queued up to pay lip service to the idea that they found Al-Assad’s Regime morally reprehensible, Turkiye was genuine in its support for the Syrian people. Millions of Syrian refugees have escaped to Turkiye and its treatment of them until quite recently, has been far and away the best in the region. Turkiye has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian people and offered exile to those who have escaped Al-Assad. It can be classed as a friend of the Syrian Revolution, which makes these past comments all the more worrying. Does Turkiye want to be remembered like this after all the support it has offered the Syrian people over the last decade? The fact that Ankara has been open to re-establishing relations with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi after years of animosity is ominous.
For better or for worse, Syria and Turkiye’s past, present and future are closely interlinked. From hundreds of years as part of the Ottoman Empire, to today’s situation, the close cultural and familial bonds shared by the two peoples means that both states cannot pretend the other does not exist. Turkiye has to invest and care for a future democratic Syria; one that respects the rule of law and human rights and has rid itself of Al-Assad.
The nineth anniversary of the 2013 Chemical attacks in Ghouta is fast approaching. It’s been categorically proven that the Assad Regime was behind these attacks and had contravened international humanitarian law. What would the victims think of any idea of reconciliation with a regime that committed such a crime? It’s hard to think that they’d be so forgiving.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.