Obama and Erdogan Edge Closer On Syria

In meeting with US President Barack Obama, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have committed Turkey to the Geneva process that foresees a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.

al-monitor US Marines hold umbrellas as rain falls during a joint news conference between President Barack Obama (2ndR) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, May 16, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.
Kadri Gursel

Kadri Gursel

@KadriGursel

Topics covered

us, russian involvement in syrian crisis, russian, geneva, assad

May 17, 2013

Everybody knows the joint objective of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama is “Syria without Assad.” Where they diverged was not the objective but on how to achieve that objective.

Until their May 16 meeting at the White House, it was possible to speak plainly on how the two leaders differed on ways and means of reaching the goal of “Syria without Assad." In recent days, their different views appeared as contrasts.

Their difference was distinct above all in what kind of a solution they supported in Syria. The uprising in Syria first turned to a civil war and could well be tending toward a regional conflict. But the Baathist regime was still standing, with no indication that it would be going away anytime soon.

Ankara was nevertheless persisting on a military solution and continued to advocate creation of “secure zones” that could signify partial occupation of Syria. Washington, on the other hand, had never warmed to the idea of a military intervention, especially one that it would have to lead and had good reasons to avoid. The latest move was Washington’s giving priority to a political/diplomatic solution anchored on a joint understanding reached between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in their May 7 meeting in Moscow. In Washington’s approach, assistance and support for the opposition was to facilitate such a solution.

As a subtext, one has to look to Washington and Ankara’s stances against the jihadists. Washington was concerned for the future of Syria and its own security from Ankara’s opening of Turkish territory to jihadist elements led by the pro-al-Qaeda Jabhat al-Nusra, and was making this known to Ankara.

The second main divergence was Ankara’s insistence on Assad’s departure as a precondition to initiating any diplomatic-political solution process.

But Assad is not going anywhere. To insist on his exit as a precondition to a political solution was possibly impeding peace by ruling out an agreed solution that could end up with Assad eventually leaving the stage. That, of course, meant even more destruction and misery for Syria in the meantime.

We know that the US, too, favors a transition government without Assad. But we don’t think that the Obama administration was insisting on keeping Assad out of the negotiations aimed at establishing such a transition government. How the two parties would affect each other’s stances was a matter of speculation before the White House meeting.

Whose position was more realistic, more resilient and therefore more persuasive given the realities? Whose was obsolete and had lost its credibility?

These questions have to be answered before evaluating the messages that could well show the way for the near future that both leaders gave in their Rose Garden news conference under drizzling rain on May 16.

Everybody knows there is no good solution for Syria. The most appropriate approach would be to choose the least bad option, and end the bloodbath that is destroying that country and threatening the region with war.

When that is the criterion, then it becomes impossible to find anything to defend in Turkey’s policy. Erdogan went to Washington as a leader whose military-solution-without-Assad policy had failed. There is more.

Erdogan sat down at Washington's negotiating table as a leader whose misguided Syria policy had endangered his country’s security and stability and accumulated excessive negative energy along fragile sectarian fault lines.

The bomb that went off on May 11 in Reyhanli town, Hatay province, where hundreds of thousands of Arab Alevis live, did not only kill more than 50 and wound 150. It also rattled Erdogan’s position considerably.

As such, Erdogan went to Washington as a weakened leader open to suggestions that it was time to change his Syrian policy.

Now we can assess who said what at the Rose Garden and what they meant.

Obama said, "Turkey is going to play an important role as we bring representatives of the regime and opposition together in the coming weeks." He went on: "We both agree that [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we're going to resolve this crisis. And we're going to keep working for a Syria that is free from Assad's tyranny; that is intact and inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups; and that’s a source of stability, not extremism, because it's in the profound interest of all our nations, especially Turkey."

In the questions and answers, Obama explained that "Geneva 2” did not mean reducing support to the opposition by saying: "There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s. If there were, I think the prime minister and I already would have acted on it and it would already be finished. And instead, what we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition. I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all the parties can buy into may yield results.” These were the words that best explained Obama’s position.

Let’s see what Prime Minister Erdogan said:

“Syria was at the top of our agenda. And we have views that overlap, as the president has just said.  But let me tell you that ending this bloody process in Syria and meeting the legitimate demands of the people by establishing a new government are two areas where we are in full agreement with the United States. To prevent Syria from becoming an area of operations for terror organizations is among our priorities."

In the Q&A, Erdogan outright referred to the Geneva process. He said: "As I said before, our views do overlap, and with our discussions this evening, we will continue to explore what we can do together, what we can consider as parts of a road map looking at Geneva and beyond. Russia and China being part of this process is very important, and this is important in the context of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Their participation in this process will certainly add greater impetus." 

It is possible to conclude from Erdogan’s remarks that he is committed to the Geneva process. This also shows that the validity of Ankara’s understanding of a military solution is no more.

Political logic requires us to think that the Americans asked Ankara to persuade the opposition groups (that Ankara is close contact with) to engage in the Geneva process. Furthermore, we will have to accept that from now on any military assistance to the opposition will serve not as a military solution but to keep the pressure on the regime that has been lately gaining militarily in the field.

It is interesting fthat Erdogan declares that he is “against terrorist organizations using Syria." Of course, what is important here is what Erdogan understands of “terror organizations.” Until now, we have not heard him or his government say a word about considering Syria's al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra as a terror organization. He probably was referring to the PYD, the PKK’s Syrian extension. If so, there is nothing interesting in what he says. But if he meant Jabhat al-Nusra, we will see.

Another important development was his announcing for the first time that he will also be visiting the West Bank alongside Gaza in June. It was known that the Obama administration was not delighted with Erdogan visiting only Gaza. It is understood that Erdogan responded favorably to suggestions from the White House.

The result is: The Ankara government that until yesterday was pursuing an extremist, illusionary and ideological Syria policy as of May 16 has come close to a moderate and rational mainstream policies. 

Kadri Gursel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007. He focuses primarily on Turkish foreign policy, international affairs and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam.

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