In February, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura controversially claimed in a press that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “…is part of the solution”.
Then a short while later in March, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, caused more controversy when declaring in an interview that “we have to negotiate in the end” with Assad.
While both statements resulted in swift backtracking amidst Syrian opposition and a regional outcry, it appears that Kerry and de Mistura merely uttered a growing acknowledgement in the West and particularly Washington.
In spite of later assurances that the US line on Assad had not changed – that he had no role in Syria’s future and had lost legitimacy to rule, Kerry’s comments merely added to growing scepticism and frustration in Turkey, with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu likening shaking hands with Assad to shaking hands with Hitler.
US President Barrack Obama, once labelled groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Yet a grand coalition, frantic responses as IS steam-rolled through large parts of Syria and Iraq and hundreds of air strikes later, the name on the lips of Washington is IS and not Assad.
Turkey which has been at increasing loggerheads with the US and become disillusioned and bitter with Obama’s foreign policy, finds itself in a difficult predicament as an “official” part of the coalition, yet finds differences with the US over Assad a bridge too far to assume a more active role. In turn, the line from Washington is that Turkey has not stepped up to the plate as a key NATO ally.
Failed US foreign policy
Regardless of the official tone, there is now increasing realisation that whilst Assad is part of the problem, he is also part of the solution.
When Assad alleged that there was indirect contact with the coalition over the operations against IS, the US quickly denied this insisting that Assad’s comments be “taken with a grain of salt.” But the situation must also be judged within the new grains of reality – Assad did not give up power when the regime was on its knees, let alone when they are relatively secure and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is rapidly splintering.
This says much about the sorry state of Western foreign policy. Four and half years into a brutal civil war that has killed over 200,000 and displaced millions under the hands of a regime that clung to power by all means possible, to be in a situation where Assad and his institution is needed to prop up a Syria under the evident threat of a Jihadist takeover, tells its own story.
Obama’s Syrian policy failed to see the bigger picture, a conflict hijacked by Jihadists that was spreading fast across the borders of Syria and that once the bushfire started the effort to contain it, let alone to put it out, would far exceed any efforts in its prevention in the first place. Syria was very much the fertile Jihadist garden which allowed the IS seeds to flourish with Assad’s blessing.
Assad continuously broke red-lines that we quickly reset into greyer lines by Washington. Finally, a largely reluctant US intervened – when yet another red-line surfaced, IS banging on the doors of Erbil and Baghdad.
Strained US-Turkey ties
The lack of intervention in the first pace and now a focus away from Assad has infuriated an Ankara adamant that tackling Assad must be part of any operation against IS. The US has insisted that its hands are full with the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, but for Turkey, increasingly fed-up with more foot-dragging by Washington, the road to defeating IS can only run through Damascus..
The softening of the US stance towards Assad is hardly through a plethora of options on the table. Put simply, giving the choice between Assad and IS, US would choose Assad over and over again. But choosing the lesser of two “evils” hardly bodes well for American credibility.
From the long-standing assertion that the time has come for Assad to “step aside” to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements that the time was now for Assad to “to think about the consequences”, the tone changes are subtle but nevertheless discernible.
Kerry gave tentative support for a largely unsuccessful Russian peace initiative between Syrian opposition figures and the regime which saw large segments of the key Syrian opposition figures boycott the talks amidst distrust and skepticism. The fact it was Russia, a chief backer of Assad, leading the peace charge with US nowhere to be seen, highlighted that Washington sees prospects of a real breakthrough as slim and that Assad’s removal is not a priority.
Turkey remains reluctant to meet the Coalitions demands of using Turkish soil for air raids or for Turkey to assist directly in the fight against IS. Turkish bases are highly strategic for a successful campaign against IS, especially Mosul.
Erdogan has shown himself as a dogged, independent and at times unpredictable ally that will not be pushed around by the US or European powers. Erdogan warned months ago prior to a repair mission by US Vice President Joe Biden that the Turkish position will not change unless the US can strike real compromise. The repair mission was ironically by a man who drew the ire of Erdogan with suggestions that Ankara had encouraged the flow of Jihadists along the border.
“From the no-fly zone to the safety zone and training and equipping – all these steps have to be taken now,” insisted Erdogan previously, before reiterating a common stance “The coalition forces have not taken those steps we asked them for…” and that as a result his stance will not change.
With such a significant shared border with Syria, home to the main Syrian opposition groups and the host of millions of refugees, Turkey finds itself at the centre of the conflict one way or another. Yet its lack of an agreed policy with the US speaks volumes on the state of what was already a diminishing relationship.
Turkish annoyance at their US partners could not have been demonstrated better than over the Kurdish town of Kobane. As Erdogan continuously downplayed the significance of the Kobane, the small dusty town unknown to much of the world become a symbol of the coalition fight against IS and one which the US deemed its credibility would be judged.
Kobane was not any Syrian town. It was part of the newly declared autonomous cantons of the main Syrian Kurdish party (PYD) which Ankara accuses of been an arm of the PKK. To the anger of Turkey, the US even provided ammunition and supplies to the Syrian Kurdish rebels with signs of growing cooperation.
The bigger picture
Even if IS is defeated in Syrian, which could take years, the US needs to quickly agree on a plan to deal with the root-cause of IS – Assad.
A grand bargain with Russian and Iran may well be possible to see that regime apparatus remains in place with Assad ‘eventually’ gone. However, such terms can no longer be on the unrealistic Genève Communique of 2012.
Even the new US initiative to train thousands of so called moderate Syrian rebels in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia starting in early spring, is fraught with difficulties. The US made clear that goal of the initiative was to empower rebels to go on the offensive against IS and set the scene for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Assad was not even mentioned.
But so fractured is the Syrian landscape that picking out the moderates and vetting individuals is a painstaking task. Indeed, many moderates have slipped into the hands of new Islamist alliances in Syria bewildered at the lack of Western support. And what about the appetite of any newly trained rebels turning their guns on IS under Western pressure whilst Assad, their ultimate priority, simply regroups and gains strengths in the background?
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if Ankara with its new independent and assertive role in the Middle East can simply wait on US policy that it remains unconvinced with, as it continues to harbor millions of refugees and an unstable border.
First Published: Daily Sabah
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc