The world of diplomacy was busy last week. The leaders of the richest 20 countries convened in the Chinese city of Hangzhou for the G20 summit, debating and committing to agreements on a number of pressing global issues.
Unsurprisingly, there remain more disagreements than agreements between the G20 leaders over how to resolve concerns such as the refugee crises, the war in Syria, the stagnated world economy and global warming. Of these problems, the Syrian crisis in particular requires urgent action by leaders to prevent the Middle East from destabilising even further, and to try to contain its continued impact on the region.
Interestingly, the shape of the reaction so far seems to be moulded in no small part by Turkish President Erdoğan’s Syria policies.
Mr. Erdoğan, although still recovering from the July 15 coup attempt and criticism over the subsequent purges, arrived at the G20 summit with strong set of cards, and seems to have left as the main beneficiary. As the president of a NATO member country home to three million refugees, Erdoğan was in an advantageous position to make demands over Syria and push for visa-free travel for Turks in the EU.
The private meetings with the U.S. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of the summit indicated that tensions are finally easing in Turkey’s fraught relations with the two powers. Ankara has also made a concerted effort to improve relations with Putin’s Russia, which may prove to be a game changer for possible international responses to the conflict in Syria.
Soon after the G20 summit ended, Turkey also managed soothe tensions with the U.S. over accusations of its role in the recent failed coup. The U.S. was accused by some Turkish officials of backing the coup attempt in Turkey. In his interview with the New York Times, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş lowered the tone of this harsh rhetoric, stating that “Turkish leaders see no signs of American complicity with the plotters.”
Increasingly frosty relations with Germany have also thawed, with Merkel saying her talks with Erdoğan were “constructive.” In June this year, the German parliament adopted a resolution recognising the 1915 killing of Armenians as genocide. Turkey retaliated by banning German officials, including the Parliamentary State Secretary in the Ministry of Defense Ralf Brauksiepe, from visiting Incirlik Air Base, where German troops are located as part of U.S.-led coalition forces against Daesh.
Following their G20 meeting, Ms. Merkel was apparently confident that the German lawmakers will be granted access to the base by the Turkish government, and that the visa-free travel deal for Turks will soon be realised.
Additionally, Putin has emphasised mending Russia’s relations with Turkey, which were at a formidable low after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last year. Though Putin asserted that more work is needed to return relations to their previous levels, ties are undoubtedly strengthening once more.
Transient consensus won’t work in Syria
There is little doubt that Erdoğan used the G20 meeting as an opportunity to lobby for his preferences in the ongoing Syrian crisis. And mending relations with the U.S. and Germany and strengthening ties with Russia gives him the leverage needed to push his point.
The President told the journalists immediately upon his from China that Turkish troops will be in Syria for the foreseeable future, arguably a sign of his success in Hangzhou.
Erdoğan announced that Turkey was asked by the U.S. to participate in a joint offensive to liberate Raqqa from Daesh, the de-facto capital of the terrorist group. He also pointed out that action should be taken in the Iraqi city of Mosul to prevent the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG/PYD) from gaining traction there under the guise of clearing the city of Daesh militants.
The joint offensive proposal indicates that Washington has come closer to agreeing to Ankara’s demands on Syria, and might be ready to sacrifice their long-time ally against Daesh, the YPG/PYD. If a strategy change is currently underway in Washington, Turkey will have made a big step in securing its southern borders from both Daesh militants and YPG combatants.
However, we don’t yet know how the exclusion of the Kurdish guerilla forces from the equation will affect the success of an operation in Mosul. Because the political foundation upon which Syria may be rebuilt is so uncertain, there is a danger that further Turkish involvement in the country could simply entangle them in a conflict they will later be unable to extricate themselves from.
This is especially so because of the complex nature of the Syrian conflict, where so many different groups are involved, some deemed terrorist organisations, some legitimate fighters. In a grim article for the Washington Post, Liz Sly explores the possible fights that could develop between these disparate groups and armed forces when Daesh is eventually defeated in Raqqa and Mosul. The monster that is Daesh could prove to be just one head of a hydra, multiplying each time it is cut down.
Liberating Raqqa from the militants with minimal cost would also serve Russian interests in Syria. And Russia knows it well. Not wanting to miss a precious opportunity, Russia is sending Valeri Gerasimov, the current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, to meet his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in Ankara to discuss a range of issues; most likely related to Turkey’s military role in a possible joint offensive for the liberation of Raqqa.
Destroying the self-proclaimed Caliphates is one aim of Russia’s involvement in Syria, as it would be a crucial step in resuscitating the Syrian regime. Given Turkey and Russia’s shifting roles in Syria, it seems that a provisional consensus is slowly gaining ground regarding a political solution in Syria, to be orchestrated by the U.S., Turkey, and Russia, finally a possible way out of this tumultuous and brutal conflict.
But for the end really to be in sight, consensus needs to be established; the time for provisional measures has long since passed. What is relatively easy to achieve is the removal of Daesh militants from city centers in Syria and Iraq. Yet, the days that follow could place Syria’s future peace at risk. Political consensus is fragile and transient between Turkey, Russia and the U.S., at least for now. A whole country and its people lies in the balance of their diplomatic relations.