Under what conditions Erdogan quits his anti-Assad stances?

Alwaght- In the wake of Turkey’s failed coup and normalization of Ankara-Moscow ties after the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, many experts have expected that Turkey will recalibrate its stances towards Syria and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the crisis between the neighboring countries will wind down.  But that not happened. Actually, Turkey didn’t alter its strategy on Syria; rather, it intensified Operation Euphrates Shield inside the Syrian territory.

Studying regional developments, one may conclude that there are two reasons behind Ankara’s behavior:

First, the Turkish foreign policy is a mix of working to increase the balance of power and balance of security. This pushes Ankara to look at the Syrian crisis from a geopolitical viewpoint. In fact, the root for this can be found in the two geopolitical axes of the Turkish policy which asserts that the Syrian president remaining in power and establishment of Iraq-Syria-Iran-Russia camp will make Turkey’s access to the West Asia very difficult. Therefore, the main issue in Ankara-Damascus relations derives from geopolitical conditions of Turkey’s surroundings. In fact, according to the Turkish view a new situation has appeared after the Iraq war in 2003. The new situation saw Iraq and Syria, both Arab neighbors of Turkey, being in area of influence of Russia and Iran. This was an unprecedented development in the whole history of rivalry between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran. Due to this coalition chain, Iran has become a regional power in the Mediterranean Sea.

On the other side, Turkey does not view Iran, unlike viewing Russia, as a serious national security threat, but it sees Tehran a real rival. Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria are three countries extraordinarily significant for Turkey. Ankara has a historical competition with Tehran in these three countries, though it is a soft geopolitical rivalry that recently observed intensification. This race is taking place while the Iraq invasion by the US completed the West Asian puzzle and strengthened the Shiite front in West Asia. As a result, Iran and Russia can access the Mediterranean Sea thanks to the three allied countries. Additionally, 1,800 kilometers of shared borders between these countries (excluding Russia) has created a considerable security myth for Turkey.

The Syrian-Turkish crisis as a result of the geopolitical developments on the one hand and PKK’s anti-Turkish moves on the other hand have pushed Ankara to a point that it was no longer possible for Turkey to stay neutral judge of the regional policies, and for the sake of its geopolitical position it should work on overthrowing Syria’s President Assad.

So, although Turkey tries to pursue a kind of an unconditional policy in the region and keep away from the West, without doubt the Ankara leaders coordinate their foreign policy with Washington. Actually, besides siding with Washington, the Turks seek to make coalitions with the Shiite Arabs. Even in March 2011, Erdogan, then prime minister of Turkey, stood out as the first Sunni leader to visit the Najaf-based shrine of Imam Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites. But Turkey has no chances of getting the majority of the Shiites of Iraq to its side as it continues racing with Iran over further influence in Iraq. Having an understanding of this fact, Ankara, to press Syria and maximize its interests, moved close to the Kurds of Iraq because it was well aware that northern Iraq, where Kurdistan region government is ruling, was an economically profitable region and a lucrative market for the Turkish companies particularly in construction and trade. By active presence in northern Iraq, Ankara has tried to nullify Damascus’ card of the PKK. This Turkish strategy was faced with new asymmetrical threats involving rise of ISIS terrorist group as well as Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish groups aside from PKK.

Second, due to geopolitical and structural changes in the surrounding regions of Turkey, the sectarianism and ethnicism in the form of armed conflicts have reached the most intense levels ever. Turkey goes to great lengths to keep this extremism and violence out of its territory, majorly in Syria. Actually, the chaotic conditions of Syria allow Turkey to, as long as it wishes, drag its troubles out of its borders. The excuse of Bashar al-Assad’s stay in power can justify this for the Turkish leaders.

In fact, now the once-held priority of removal of the Syrian president has shifted to keeping the Syrian territory united in a bid to block establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region close to the Turkish borders. Now Ankara shares idea with Damascus about preventing the Kurdish independence, an accordance that pushed Turkey’s leaders show flexibility on the future of the Syrian president. Turkey’s proposal is that in the new Syria the sovereignty is fully protected and there are no special ethnic privileges to any group. This should prepare the ground for return of the refugees to their country.

On the other side, the climax of Syria battlefield developments for Turkey took place in Manbij town in Aleppo. Although its liberation from ISIS terrorist group was found favorable in the eyes of the anti-ISIS sides, the success of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their control of it sounded the alarm bells simultaneously for both Turkey and Syria, and perhaps very sooner than expected paved the way for rise of an unwanted coalition between Erdogan and Assad.

Just before liberation of Manbij, the Kurds and the Syrian government due to sharing an enemy which was the ISIS not only did not clash but also worked within a tangible alliance. However, Hediya Yousef, the co-president of the Rojava Federation, following capture of Manbij said that the Kurdish forces were to connect the three Kurdish cantons of Kobani, Afrin, and Island. This plan drew response from the Syrian forces as the Syrian air force for the first time since start of conflict in the country carried out airstrikes on the positions of the Kurdish fighters in Hasakah in Syria’s northeast.

Therefore, following its campaign in northern Syria, Turkey has noticed a new situation. At the same time, the central Syrian government has focused efforts on thwarting the threats in the north as there is a threat of establishment of a Kurdish state there. Ankara actually now understands that President Assad is a crucial player and beneficial to the Turkish stances.

Here a question presents itself: have geopolitical interests fueled the crisis in Turkey-Syria relations or ethnic and sectarian groups around have led to its ignition? Having in mind the above-mentioned arguments, the Ankara-Damascus crisis must be seen through the Turkish political elites’ interpretation of the West Asia geography and its geopolitical surroundings. This interpretation, in turn, has led to spoiling Ankara’s zero-tension policy with the neighbors. Actually it gave place to the policy of building a security belt in the surrounding regions.

We can conclude that many of the Syria-related policies of the Turkish government are attributed to the realistic factors. These policies reflect changes in Turkey’s strategic and structural environment, though it does not mean that the leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey are uninfluential in appearance of these policies and structural environment.

By Alwaght