After Astana: Turkey and prospects for a political solution in Syria

By Fatih Resul Kilinc

Having finally come to the realisation that an effective solution in Syria can not possibly be a military one, the conflict’s main parties convened last week for a meeting in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. 

People inspect the damage after a Syrian regime warplane targeted the Kamuna refugee camp on May 05, 2016. 8 people were killed and another 30 injured. Source: Middle East Monitor

People inspect the damage after a Syrian regime warplane targeted the Kamuna refugee camp on May 05, 2016. 8 people were killed and another 30 injured. Source: Middle East Monitor

Spearheaded by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the goal of the talks was to solidify the ceasefire brokered in late December last year and to achieve the first meaningful steps towards a political solution in Syria.

Representatives of most of the key actors and their proxies were invited to the meeting. But there appears to be no room for radical groups in the reconstruction of Syria. ISIS was barred from the talks for obvious reasons. While Jabhat Fateh al-Sham was excluded due to its affiliation with Al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both staunch supporters of the rebel groups, were also not invited after objections by the Assad regime, which accuses them of financing terrorism in Syria. This would seem to signify a calculated decision by Turkey to collapse its tripartite alliance with the Gulf nations, and instead openly ally itself with Russia over the Syrian question. It is also a sign that Russia has fully taken the lead in managing the conflict with regards to who will be part of its solution.

Perhaps the most surprising exclusion from the meeting was the pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which control the Kobane, Afrin, and Rojava cantons in northern Syria—formations Turkey sees as a major blow to its national interests. Blaming Turkey for sidelining them, the Kurdish group declared prior to the commencement of the Astana meeting that the terms agreed to by its attendants would not be binding for them. 

However, while Turkey has succeeded (with some diplomatic exertion) in excluding the Kurdish factions from previous Geneva 1-2-3 summits and the Astana meeting, neither a wait-and-see attitude nor delaying tactics will yield long-term victories. Just as military action did little to tilt the balance of forces in Syria, the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) efforts to contain the aspirations of Kurdish nationalists will have only a limited effect in the long-run. Turkey will, therefore, need to make a concerted effort with all relevant parties — excluding the radical Islamist groups — if it intends to have a greater influence on the future of Syria.

The other not-so-surprising surprise of the meeting was the presence of George Krol, the American ambassador to Kazakhstan. America’s relatively peripheral role has been interpreted by pundits as a sign of its diminishing stature and influence over the conflict. It is also possible, however, that the understated presence of the U.S. indicates that the new Trump administration is still considering its position on Syria, and is weighing all options before committing.

As can be gathered from his public statements, President Trump’s focus on radical Islam, particularly the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), gives hints about the forthcoming U.S. policy on Syria. The new president’s recent interview with ABC News revealed a revival of the safe-zone plan for northern Syria; suggesting that the U.S. will increase its efforts to combat ISIS, while creating secure areas for civilians. Of course, the creation and maintenance of such a zone would be unwieldy for the U.S. alone, and would necessitate the support of a large international coalition that does not currently exist. Nonetheless, it seems that the U.S. is preparing to ramp up its involvement in Syria, with different but perhaps more practical tools.

Such an active U.S. engagement in the conflict under the Trump administration would potentially be detrimental to Turkey’s bargaining power. For if opposing ISIS is the top priority for Trump, the U.S. will have no shortage of potential allies. The outcome of the first Trump-Putin phone call has already indicated the potential for a coalition between Russia and the U.S. against ISIS. The U.S. military has also already cultivated close links with armed Kurdish groups on the ground. As such, Turkey’s cooperation may not be quite as vital to the U.S. as some in Ankara had hoped. This comes on the back of Ankara’s disappointment about Trump’s talk of “safe zones”, without reference to the sphere of military influence Turkey has already carved out over the Syrian border; which it is using to combat ISIS and house refugees.    

The fall of Aleppo to regime forces last December has forced a change in Turkey’s Syria objectives. As Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek stated at the recent Davos forum, “the facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad, it’s not realistic.” This U-turn was an acknowledgement that, for Ankara to continue to deepen its political and economic ties with Russia, more cooperation with Assad’s backers in Moscow is required. This growing relationship will likely concern Turkey’s NATO allies, but it in part reflects the fact that although Ankara sought support from the West for its actions in Syria, no support ever materialized.

The Astana conference has laid the groundwork for a long-awaited political solution in Syria. With the next round of talks scheduled to take place in Geneva in a few weeks time, let’s hope that all parties involved can unite around a commitment to protecting the most basic common denominator: human life.

 

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