Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may have turned the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into a matter of honor, but thus far their predictions for the downfall of their nemesis have proved wrong.
In addition, efforts to bring an end to the Syrian crisis have taken a turn that neither could possibly like: The head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Mouaz al-Khatib, has said he would consider talks with the Assad regime under certain conditions.
That possibility goes against the grain of the policy that Ankara has followed since the outbreak of violence in Syria and rejects allowing Assad, or any member of his regime, anywhere near the negotiating table. Erdogan and Davutoglu’s moralistic bottom line has been that one cannot negotiate with a dictator who kills his people.
Not so long ago Erdogan, with Khatib by his side, had called on Assad to leave office and let “the people’s choice” in. “Over 100 countries have accepted the leadership of this brother and his team,” Erdogan said while pointing at Khatib before a crowd of Syrian refugees in December in the Turkish town of Akcakale. “So what does this mean? It means ‘Hey Assad, we don’t recognize you anymore so get lost,’” he added angrily.
Asserting that “Allah’s help is near,” Erdogan intoned in Arabic, “Those who show patience will attain victory.” Developments on the ground, however, suggest that victory is not yet in sight. They also indicate that the bloodshed will most likely continue after Assad goes because of the sectarian divisions that have grown due to the blood already spilled.
This situation makes some form of dialogue between the opposition and the regime inevitable if the violence is to be stopped as soon as possible and an environment relatively conducive to working out a stable future for Syria is to be established. The presence at the Dayton peace talks of Slobodan Milosevic, as unsavory as he was, is what eventually ended the Bosnian war in 1995. Also of note, this did not prevent him from being sent to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes.
In an apparent acknowledgment of the stalemate in Syria, Khatib said last week that he was ready to meet regime officials, provided “160,000 detainees” were released and the passports of Syrians stranded outside the country were renewed. Rejecting accusations of “treachery” by some opposition members, Khatib declared, “Our people are dying, and we will not allow that.” He then called on Assad, saying, “We can help each other in the interest of the people.”
Khatib later told the al-Arabiya news channel that he was ready to talk to Assad deputy Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa. Of interest, Davutoglu has in the past pointed to the relatively moderate Sharaa as a person who could provide leadership during a transition of power in Damascus.
Regardless of whatever support Ankara might offer Sharaa, it is contingent on isolating Assad and seeing him step down. As matters stand, however, any dialogue with Sharaa at this point will amount to talking to the regime, as Assad will definitely be the one pulling the strings as a condition for agreeing to the talks.
In another development unlikely to please Erdogan and Davutoglu, Washington is also backing Khatib. "If the regime has any interest in peace, it should sit down and talk now with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and we would strongly support al-Khatib in that call," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said when questioned about Khatib’s remarks.
Nuland also emphasized that those on both sides who have committed atrocities should be held to account, thus intimating that opposition forces have also committed atrocities, an approach that could not have gone down well in Ankara.
Meanwhile, Erdogan continues to rail at the West for its inaction over Syria, which he contrasts with the intervention in Mali, suggesting simplistically that the African intervention is a neocolonialist resource grab, while the lack of intervention in Syria is because it has no oil.
Erdogan conveniently overlooks the fact that regional Islamic powers, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also have not displayed an appetite for military involvement in Syria. His remarks indicate that he is principally addressing a domestic audience, where his moralizing on such topics is usually well received among grassroots supporters.
Thus Erdogan also overlooks the Security Council resolution on Mali and that the French intervention has widespread international support, including that of Russia and African countries, including an Islamic country, Algeria, whose painful history Erdogan always mentions when bashing France.
Erdogan ignores the reality that the Syrian crisis is not merely an ethical issue anymore, but one of regional and international power politics, with two blocs supporting opposing sides. This means that any military intervention by a group of countries without a UN resolution is bound to have a destabilizing effect in the Middle East given that another group of countries will support the other side, thus laying the ground for future stalemate.
Meanwhile Israel’s recent air strike against Syria, which the Israeli government is refusing to acknowledge or deny, has left Davutoglu stuck between the two objects of his animosity — Assad on the one side and Israel on the other. Following three days of silence after the strike, which obviously caught Ankara unprepared, Davutoglu finally blasted Assad.
Asking rhetorically why Assad could not “even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?” Davutoglu suggested, bizarrely, that there might be a secret accord between Assad and Israel. He also vowed that Turkey would not sit and watch as Israel attacked a Muslim country.
These words were taken by many analysts as meaningless bombast reflecting Ankara's frustration over its inability to influence events in Syria.
That frustration will inevitably grow now that Khatib has entered into a dialogue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, both of whom have been urging the opposition to talk to Assad. Judging by Khatib’s latest remarks, Lavrov and Salehi may be making progress.
Prior to the recent security conference in Munich, where Lavrov met with Khatib, Lavrov had been adamant in stating, "The persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of Assad is the single biggest reason for the continuing tragedy in Syria."
Ankara, clearly a target of this remark, could have responded by pointing to Russian political and military support for Assad as prolonging the bloodshed. This, however, would not have altered the fact that regional and global powers are competing over Syria, a situation that Turkey has no power to influence, while innocent people continue to die.
This begs a crucial question that Erdogan and Davutoglu will have to eventually answer: Is Turkey’s priority to stop the bloodshed in Syria or to see Assad go no matter what? If it is the latter, this can hardly be considered ethical — despite all the moralizing from Ankara — given the innocent people being killed.
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. He can also be read in Taraf.