The notable absence of the United States (US) in the latest Syrian ceasefire coordinated by Turkey and Russia coincided with escalating rhetoric and growing animosity from Turkey, blaming Washington for the failed military coup, recent security attacks, and the growing Syrian Kurdish power.
The intensification of criticism from Turkey is designed as parting shots at the outgoing US President and as pressure on the incoming US President-elect Donald Trump.
With the thawing of ties with Russia, Turkey is increasingly looking to build bridges away from the West; this is evident not only with general animosity towards Washington but also the European Union in recent months.
The shift in Ankara can be seen with the armed intervention in northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) and by accepting that Russia and Iran would not allow the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Michael A. Reynolds, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24, “Under Obama’s leadership the US either by intention or default put itself on the sidelines. This, I think, exasperated Ankara and led it to reach out to Moscow, repair relations, and to accept Assad’s continued tenure as president of Syria.”
Now, in playing a prominent role in the latest ceasefire and the prospective talks in Kazakhstan, Turkey is seemingly open to striking a deal, without the US to act as a roadblock, to preserve its interests in Syria while Russia and Iran would also maintain strategic interests.
Ankara’s key goal, however, is to curtail the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy, in contrast to the continued US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.
As for Russia, it will continue to enjoy unhindered access to the Mediterranean via its naval bases, a pro-Russian regime in the Middle East and growing influence in the region last seen in the Soviet era.
Meanwhile, Iran’s influence is also growing through a pro-Iranian access zone along the Shiite axis between Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
By pressing ahead with a ceasefire, peace talks and a possible grand bargain over Assad, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are setting the stall for the future Trump administration.
While Trump will exert some influence, the expectation is that a more Russia-friendly Washington will provide little resistance to any initiative. Trump has already highlighted that his focus is on working with Russia to defeat IS and is unlikely to continue support for Syrian rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled his hope that Trump “will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation.” One of Trump’s dilemmas will be how to handle the existing military alliance with the Syrian Kurds that has been vital to pushing back IS.
Turkey has a strong expectation that Trump will change course over support of the Kurds, but a complete u-turn by Washington is risky and not inevitable.
Overlooking the Kurds and allowing Turkey to take center stage in battling IS on the ground, as it has long insisted, may weaken IS but will risk inevitable conflict with the Kurds that Obama has tried to avoid.
Trump has previously stated “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”. However, balancing between the Kurds and an increasingly hawkish Turkey is difficult.
Ultimately, the indecisive approach of the Obama administration towards Syria lead to its waning influence and credibility in the region.
Various red lines such as the use of chemical weapons by Assad were crossed without action and Obama hesitated to empower Syrian rebels, especially as the distinction between moderates and Islamists amongst fragmented rebels became murky.
According to Reynolds, “Trump was quite critical of Obama’s half-hearted attempt to intervene in Syria, and particularly of Obama’s muddled and incompetent efforts to aid the armed opposition in Syria.
Whereas Clinton wished to double-down on intervention, Trump did not see how such recklessness would serve American interests.”
While the US dithered, Russia took center stage diplomatically and shaped the military picture on the ground. After all, it was both a combatant and an arbiter and had to be taken seriously.
As for Trump–Turkey and Russia expect him to come on board with their plans, but Trump has already proved unpredictable, and Syria remains too complex for straight forward relations between sides with their differing agendas.
First Published: Kurdistan 24