Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Istanbul on April 17, but on the same day also took advantage of a photo opportunity with Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces of Syria. Only a tiny segment of the Turkish media noticed the significance of these meetings. Although the meeting with Lavrov was covered by the media, television coverage of Davutoglu meeting al-Khatib was but a minor news item that one saw only by chance.
The Syrian issue is now at the center of intensive diplomatic traffic in Istanbul. Lavrov made a quick visit to there and, as discerned from his statements, departed without agreeing with Turkey on the Syria issue. In other words, the two neighboring countries agreed to disagree.
Davutoglu’s remark that “joint efforts will continue with Russia" despite everything, was a diplomatic confession of the continuing disagreement.
Lavrov came to Turkey because of the "Core Group of the Friends of Syria” meeting scheduled for April 20 in Istanbul. Eleven countries will participate in the meeting promoted by Turkey, or more accurately, Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Alongside Turkey, the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are especially important participating countries. France was the first, followed by the UK, to announce its recognition of the National Coalition led by al-Khatib as the legitimate representative of Syrian people. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are two leading Arab countries sending weapons and financial support to the Syrian opposition.
It is not clear how deeply the US is involved, and what it endorses. There are signals that with the second Obama administration, the US is now more willing to see the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US Secretary of State John Kerry will be coming to Turkey for the third time in two months, this time for the meeting of "core" countries. But it is still not known how much say Kerry has on the Syrian issue. On the same day the media reported the Davutoglu-Lavrov meeting in Istanbul, an important report was printed by the New York Times with the reliable byline of Michael R. Gordon under the headline "Top Obama Officials Differ on Syrian Rebels in Testimony to Congress.” The report said that John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel differ on the subject of military assistance to the Syrian opposition. The following lines of the report attracted my special attention:
"Mr. Hagel, joined by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the Pentagon was moving to deliver medical supplies and food rations to that opposition. But highlighting the risks of deeper involvement in Syria, General Dempsey said the situation with the opposition had become more confused."
That alleged confusion has apparently infected the US Administration, or at least led to indecision on how to deal with the Syrian opposition.
When viewed from outside, the Syrian opposition truly appears to be confused. The election of Ghassan Hito as the interim prime minister on March 18 with the support of the Syrian National Council, which constitutes the backbone of the coalition, by a tiny majority instead of an expected consensus, indicates the persistence of curious vacillations in the opposition's ranks. No wonder one of the top leaders of the Syrian National Council told me two weeks ago that al-Khatib’s approval of negotiations with the regime had prompted reactions from the opposition ranks, and Ghassan Hitto’s election was related to this reaction.
Ghassan Hitto is from a Kurdish family residing in Damascus. He went to the US in 1980 when he was 17 years old, lived there for 30 years and then settled in Turkey. He has no known political background. His election as an interim prime minister within Syria reflects the wishes of the opposition, but it is seriously doubtful how influential he can be with armed opposition forces that are more and more dominated by Salafist and other Islamist groups.
Turkey maintains relations with a wide spectrum of Syrian opposition figures, from Ghassan Hitto to al-Khatib. But Turkey’s basic position must be to maintain its influence on the Syrian National Council. Just 48 hours before the Core Group meeting, leading Turkish news channel Haberturk hosted three leading Syrian National Coalition (SNC) figures in a long talk show: former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Sadruddin Ali Beyanuni, former SNC chairman Abdelbaset Seyda and Assyrian SNC Representative Abdelahad Aseifo. That was the first of its kind on Turkish airwaves.
For Turkey to provide such an expansive podium to the Syrian opposition is a message to Lavrov and Kerry, and even more so to Saudi officials. According to leaked reports, Turkey is coordinating with the Qatar over Syria.
The Russian attitude, as much as is revealed by Lavrov, doesn’t show any changes. Lavrov recalled the 2012 Geneva Accord and added, "In Geneva, it was decided to negotiate with the regime, but that did not stipulate that Assad give up his seat.”
While Lavrov was on his way to Istanbul, Assad, in a statement al-Ikhbariya TV as a message to the Core Group meeting, accused the West of attempting to colonize his country. He said the West will pay a high price for what he claimed was support for al-Qaeda in Syria’s conflict. He hardened his stance by saying, “There is no option but victory” and maintained that he will not step down, asserting “no to surrender, no to submission.”
It seems he emboldened Russia's anti-Western stance and was in turn emboldened by the toughness displayed by Lavrov in Istanbul.
With the participation of John Kerry at a meeting in Istanbul hosting a confused Syrian opposition, it remains to be seen whether the Core Group meeting will be able to give impetus to efforts to overcome the Syrian stalemate.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul.