Newly appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected in Ankara soon, a key stop on a nine-country tour, during which the main topic of his discussions will undoubtedly be Syria, even if Turkey and the United States have other issues to consider. Although the two countries have closely coordinated on Syria in the past, differences have started to emerge on how the crisis should end, a fact that will no doubt focus added attention on the talks Kerry has with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.
Turkey has been watching US efforts to push for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis with some concern. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to believe that the Syrian opposition can prevail if it receives the necessary military support from the West. President Barack Obama, however, has refused to send arms to the opposition, despite strong recommendations to do so by the Pentagon, State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Differences between Ankara and Washington have also emerged as to who among the opposition groups should be supported.The United States is clearly shying away from radical Islamist groups, having branded one of the leading ones, the al-Nusra Front, as a “terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda.” Ankara, however, told the United States — during high-level talks in January in Washington between senior diplomats — that it does not agree with the ban on the Sunni group, which it says is one of the most effective forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile al-Nusra leaders have given no indication that they are fighting for a democratic Syria, declaring instead that their aim is to install an Islamic regime once Assad is defeated. This position stands contrary to Ankara’s often expressed desire to see a democratic Syria emerge.
Kerry will also be arriving in Ankara against the backdrop of increased efforts by Washington and Moscow to resolve the crisis, which appears set to continue indefinitely. Syria itself does not have the capacity to arrive at a resolution on its own after two years of bloodshed that has thus far reportedly left up to 70,000 people dead.
While the United States and Russia continue, on the surface, to disagree over Syria, the recent flurry of diplomatic activity spearheaded by the two leading members of the Security Council suggests that there is more coordination between them than might appear at first glance. Given Turkey's current position, which appears to be rowing against the tide, it is not clear where Ankara will fit in as far as diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian crisis are concerned. All indications are that it still refuses to see the situation in Syria as a civil war, fed by sectarian and ethnic divisions, which in the end will require a negotiated settlement.
The situation remains a clear-cut one for Erdogan and Davutoglu — a ruthless dictator is killing his own people and therefore should be removed, by force if necessary, before any diplomatic or political steps to settle the crisis are considered. Interestingly and perhaps tellingly, Ankara has refused to condemn the car bomb attack on February 21 near the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and the Russian Embassy in Damascus that killed 53 people and injured more than 230, mostly innocent passersby, including children from a nearby school. The fact that the Turkish Foreign Ministry has issued three official condemnations this month alone for similar attacks in Iraq further highlights Ankara’s silence on the Damascus bombing, for which al-Nusra is suspected. This clearly suggests a selective approach by the Erdogan government toward such attacks that hardly puts Turkey in a good light.
In the United Arab Emirates during the last weekend in February, Erdogan told an audience of more than 2,000 delegates at the “Government Communication Forum” that Turkey would "not keep silent when, every day, in Syria, innocent babies, women and people are murdered." He added that they would also not “keep quiet about the silent Satan of Syria, its ruthless dictator,” who, he said, “massacres his own people without mercy." Erdogan, however, had no words for the victims of the Damascus bombing, which took place three days before his address and killed “innocent babies, women and people.”
Because of its position on Syria, Ankara is also not very happy about Russian efforts to bring members of the Assad regime – if not Assad himself – together with members of the Syrian opposition for talks aimed at ending the bloodshed. Russian diplomacy gained added significance when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem announced in Moscow on Feb. 25, after meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that they were ready for talks with the Syrian armed opposition. The Assad regime had refused to do so in the past.
Meanwhile the United States has succeed in talking Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, out of boycotting the international summit on Syria in Rome on Feb. 28. Davutoglu is expected to be in attendance. The Syrian opposition had said that it would boycott the talks because of “the world's silence” over the violence in Syria. Al-Khatib reportedly decided to go to Rome after the United States and Britain said they would provide more support for the opposition, although there is no indication that it will be military support.
It is not clear what role, if any, Ankara — which remains close to elements in the Syrian opposition who oppose any settlement that would leave Assad in the background — played in convincing al-Khatib. As matters stand, Turkey does not appear anywhere in the vicinity of the current diplomatic activity over Syria led by Washington and Moscow. This maneuvering is, in fact, moving efforts to solve the Syrian crisis in a direction that neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu are in a position to like much, given their view on how the crisis should end.
Cengiz Çandar, a leading Turkish expert on the Middle East and a contributing writer for Al-Monitor, argued in a Feb. 17 article for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse that “even if Washington and Moscow reach an agreement over Syria, geopolitics will always bestow Turkey with a say over Syria.” This may not be true given that “geopolitics” should have placed Turkey in a much more influential position on Syria today, at the very moment when international efforts are being ratcheted up to bring about an end to the crisis.
The question to ask then, in connection with Kerry’s visit to Turkey, is who will convince who on Syria? While it remains to be seen whether it will be Davutoglu who convinces Kerry or the other way around, it must be noted that Davutoglu will not have a strong hand to play during these talks. Another option is that neither side will manage to convince the other, which will not only leave Ankara and Washington further at odds over how to proceed on Syria, but will also likely contribute to increased marginalization of Turkey in the efforts to end this civil war.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.