A misguided conviction on the Syrian issue has prevailed in Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey’s Syria policy is to act as a subcontractor for the US and Turkey is tasked with carrying out the “remote control” policy of Washington that seeks to topple the Assad regime. In particular, some Turkish groups that label themselves “leftist” and Islamic circles subscribe to this misguided conviction.
That conviction bears no relation whatsoever to reality. Although the US and Turkey might appear to have reconciled over Syria, their approaches are widely divergent. This misguided conviction of US and Turkish positions dominate even the upper levels of the Turkish state. The conviction was that Americans did not want to be seen to be active on Syria until after the US presidential elections but would then use their clout to begin closely cooperating with Ankara.
The elections were in November, but there is still no sign that the Obama administration will be more active on Syria.
To the contrary, we have heard reports that Washington is content with developments that pit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime against the Islamic resistance groups close to al-Qaeda in an attritional struggle. We also heard just a few days ago from a solid source that Turkish officials have been misreading Washington’s Syria approach and that the US has no intention even to move a finger for Syria.
One part of the impressions coming out of Washington conveyed by Milliyet’s Asli Aydintasbas drew attention by stressing the points I mentioned above:
Prime Minister Erdogan has been waiting for an appointment with Obama since his re-election. Americans are not in a hurry, saying their government is just being set up. The real reason for their delay, however, is knowing that when Erdogan comes to Washington, he will say, 'Syria can’t go on like this. You have to do something.' A civil war with 60,000 deaths, daily massacres and refugees piled up at its border is a major headache for Turkey, but there is no inclination to move the Obama administration to do anything in Syria. They are content to watch from a distance. The mood in this city is, 'That’s all very sad, but we are not going to get involved in that bloody civil war.'
In fact, Turkey’s official position on Syria, apart from the prime minister’s and foreign minister’s frequent fiery comments thrashing their "former best friend" Assad, is not much different from Washington’s position in substance. Turkey has no intention of conducting a military intervention in Syria. Ankara’s approach can be summarized as, ‘’As long as Syrians are running their own affairs and will one day bring down that regime, why should Turkey take further risks?”
But Turkey is not the US — developments in Syria affect Turkey. Look at the numbers: According to UN figures, the conflict has produced more than 60,000 deaths, 700,000 refugees and more than two million internally displaced people. Bear in mind that Syria’s population is one third of Turkey’s. Now apply these numbers to Turkey’s scale and you will understand what a great disaster it is.
Worse still, the situation continues unchanged, with no sign of how and when it will all end. The lifespan of the Assad regime may be shortened, but by how long? It doesn’t seem that the Syrian opposition is going to take over anytime soon.
As we said before, Syria’s "Lebanonization" is in progress, which means diverse political forces and sects all under influence of different foreign countries will be controlling parts of the county in a long, drawn-out civil war. In Lebanon, that civil war lasted 15 years.
This region is resilient and can deal with long wars and civil violence. The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years and killed more than one million people. Syria’s "Lebanonization" might not last that long, but it certainly won’t be short.
True, Turkey did adopt a politically and ethically correct opposition vis-à-vis developments in Syria, but from the outset but they were dependent upon calculations that Assad would be toppled in a short time, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. The fact that Bashar still rules in Damascus not only prolongs the war, but has the potential to cause major problems for Turkey, if not Washington.
This situation and Washington’s persistence in not getting involved both strengthen the hand of actors like Russia that advocate “’transition-process negotiations” between the regime and the opposition. Three weeks ago, Assad said he was open to reconciliation negotiations and that he could talk to "non-terrorist opposition." And now Moaz al-Khatib, the new leader of the umbrella opposition organization supported by Turkey, says, ‘‘I am ready to meet representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul.”
This declaration by the opposition leader created an uproar in the ranks of the opposition which categorically reject any negotiations before Assad goes. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also supports that stance. Suheyr Attassi, one of two deputies to Khatib, said, ”There is no negotiating with butchers,” and the Syrian National Council, set up under Turkey’s auspices, said Khatib’s remarks “do not reflect the position of the opposition that has refused to negotiate with the criminal regime.”
Khatib responded to this criticism with, “There are those who sit in comfortable armchairs and reject negotiation. We can sit down with the regime not to discuss its survival, but how it will go with minimum loss of blood. This is to find a political solution to the crisis and to make the necessary adjustments to prevent even further shedding of blood.”
Khatib’s offer of negotiations was the first signal ever to come from the opposition ranks suggesting negotiations with the regime. This is what Russia wants. If Moscow can get Washington’s support, either the way will be opened for negotiations or the opposition will crack.
Every development about Syria has the potential to affect Turkey’s foreign and domestic politics. Developments in Iraq have the same potential. Iraq is seriously affected by Syrian events, and the rope connecting Erbil with Baghdad is fraying by the day. Ankara supports Erbil, and Washington doesn’t want to give up Maliki in Baghdad.
Ankara’s life in the Middle East is tough, with or without Washington.
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.