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Turkey's running out of time to pick a partner in Syria

Turkey's been playing the field in Syria, but as the crisis escalates, Ankara may have to make a commitment to either its NATO allies or Moscow.
Turkish soldiers ride on a military vehicle in the center of Afrin, Syria March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RC1B6933DB00

Developments unfolding around the alleged chemical attack in Syria's eastern Ghouta might leave Turkey between a rock and a hard place.

Turkey, which had opened up space for itself in Syria by deftly taking advantage of the competition between the United States and Russia, is now being dragged to a crossroads. If the Western intention to punish the Syrian regime escalates to major clashes, Turkey might not be able to rely on the tactics of its opportunistic policy.

“It's not all that easy to intervene between two superpowers and bring peace to Syria,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said April 11 during a public meeting in Ankara.

Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish government, which had been pursuing a policy of absolute hostility toward Assad, recently reversed its tradition of blaming the Damascus regime for every disaster.

Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, struck a defiant tone this week by saying on Twitter, "The Syrian regime should account for attacks in different parts of the country and at different times." But Ankara’s rhetoric suddenly changed after a phone conversation between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We underline the need for an immediate investigation and finding the truth" about the alleged chemical attack, Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said at an April 9 press conference. "Of course, Syria must not be sacrificed in the power struggle between the US and Russia. The international community must act together or face other problems."

This hinted that Turkey might be going along with Russia in a partnership that's not all that robust. However, Ankara recently declared support for the US resolution before the UN Security Council calling for action against Syria for the alleged chemical attack. Turkey made a show of loyalty to its NATO partners, though Russia vetoed the resolution.

Ankara wants to punish the Assad regime. But Turkey has to be careful in its relations with Moscow for a number of reasons: the S-400 Russian missiles Turkey wants to buy, ever-deepening economic ties, rapidly progressing construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, Turkey's offensive in Afrin and other military operations conducted in Syria with Moscow’s green light, and the Syrian peace process being forged in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Another topic calling for Turkish diplomacy is Ankara's opposition to the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Russia supports and which is also strongly backed by the United States and France. And a striking reminder of the important, though sometimes costly, Russian green light is the very recent declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Turkey should hand over control of Afrin to the Syrian army — something Turkey isn't anxious to do.

Moreover, Erdogan counts on domestic political profit from operations in Syria — which could suffer under potential Astana compromises. Turkey almost certainly will have to modify its Kurdish policy, as Russia has stated the Kurds should have a voice in the Syrian peace process. And, if Erdogan agrees to follow the course set by the United States in coordinating with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and SDF, he could easily upend his domestic support in the coming elections.

There are factors that may force Turkey to pick a side in this critical time. First, its partnership with Russia and Iran in the fragile Astana peace process might not meet Turkey’s expectations. Then, there are growing economic issues and the seemingly unstoppable loss of value of Turkey's currency. Negative economic signals are forcing Turkey to think hard about the costs of taking on the West. Erdogan, who has problems with so many countries, must be careful to protect his country’s economy.

Contradictory factors are currently preventing Turkey from taking clear-cut positions between the two camps. But if the situation gets more serious, Ankara will have to make a choice. Above all, Turkey will face the issue of what to do with the Syrian areas it currently controls. It will either stay in the game together with Russia, abandon those territories and look for ways to stay neutral, or offer its military presence in Syria (along with the local militias it supports) to the service of the West-Gulf coalition. Erdogan’s outburst to Lavrov that Turkey — and not the Russian foreign minister — will be the one to decide when to hand over Afrin was a clear sign that Ankara could still revert to its former policy dedicated to toppling Assad.

Actually, an April 11 statement by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu may well be the harbinger of Turkey’s return to that policy.

“The time has come for the Bashar Assad regime in Syria to go," Cavusoglu said. "The Assad regime must leave Syria. This is not the first time the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. It has killed nearly 1 million people with airstrikes and barrel bombs."

Whatever position Turkey adopts will also be critical to the US administration if Washington wants to play a role in Syria's future. It was Turkey’s cooperation that shaped the proxy war in Syria after 2011. If Ankara takes Russia's side or stands in the middle, Turkey will be a lost ally for the Western partners planning to punish Assad. Despite the frequent cracks in relations between Ankara and Washington — over Incirlik Air Base, the Gulen movement, the Zarrab court case in New York and relations with the Kurds — Turkey is still not a partner that can be dismissed with ease.

The Western coalition now taking shape may also be aiming to settle accounts with Russia over a variety of issues in addition to Syria.

The Syrian crisis isn't just about Syria. No matter what Turkey decides, this dangerous duel being staged in Syria has the distinct potential to become a crisis for Turkey.

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