Turkey’s Big Rethink


Ankara is coming to the conclusion that it urgently needs to mend fences with Iran, Iraq and Syria

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It was no surprise that this week’s Syrian opposition conference, called for at Saudi Arabia’s behest by the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and including representatives of the so-called Cairo and Moscow platforms, ended in failure. Few expected the gathering to succeed given the near-consensus in the Arab world and internationally that Bashar al-Asad will inevitably to remain in power until further notice, and the radical changes that have been taking place in the map of regional alliances. Most prominent of these is the emergence of a Turkish-Iranian-Russian axis confronting a rival US-backed Saudi-Emirati axis that is trying to lure Egypt to join it. But even the mere convening of the opposition meeting, with the participation of opposition groups backed by Russia and Egypt, was a success in its own right.

The two-day meeting’s inability to reach agreement on forming a unified delegation or drafting a joint political platform was not, as reported, due to disagreements over Asad’s status and if and when he should he leave office. It was because there was an additional undeclared reason for holding the meeting: to elbow Qatar and Turkey’s clients out of the Syrian opposition delegation and, by extension, of the country’s political future – direct fallout from the crisis in the Gulf and the no-holds-barred battle being waged by its principals.

Saudi Arabia, which used to vehemently oppose any role for Asad in Syria’s future, has now retreated from that position – its awkward denials notwithstanding. It knows it is hard to achieve this goal given the Syrian army’s steadfastness and the defeat of the American plan for Syria at the hands of the Russian one. This explains why the kingdom was so eager to involve the Egyptian- and Russian-based factions in the opposition talks. It is steadily coming round to Cairo’s view that supports keeping the regime in Damascus in power as the best guarantee of ensuring that Syria remains ‘Arab’ and united in the face of political Islam – whether of the extreme (IS and Nusra) or moderate (Muslim Brotherhood) variety – and in order to help counter future Iranian and Turkish regional ambitions.

Shifting alliances

When Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair told an HNC delegation earlier this month that it had to live with the idea of Bashar remaining in power and to think up new ideas, he was reflecting a change of official Saudi thinking that applies not just to the Syrian issue but also to others such as Iraq, Yemen and Iran.

The confident tone sounded by Asad in the speech he made this week to a foreign ministry conference in Damascus reflected his appreciation of the strategic changes taking place in the region which are bringing the war in Syria towards its closing stages.

The big delegation sent by Egypt to this year’s Damascus International Fair was a political message of great importance in this regard. It signals the start of a competition – not to say a struggle – for influence over the ‘new Syria’ between regional and international powers, and the beginning of a process of open political and economic normalization with Damascus.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rare visit to the Jordanian capital Amman was another sign of the changing times. So was the much more significant earlier visit to Ankara in mid-August by Iranian Chief of Staff  Gen. Mohamed Hasan Bagheri, where he signed a strategic military agreement between the two countries.

 A new map of regional political alliances is being drawn over the fading one that emerged after the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, which led to regimes being toppled in several Arab states such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The Syrian regime was supposed to follow.

The new map may transform former friends into enemies and vice-versa. Whoever would have foreseen Saudi Arabia’s current enthusiastic embrace of Iraqi Shia leaders under the banner of upholding Iraq’s Arab identity? Or it reopening of the Ar’ar border crossing to Iraq and establishing consulates in Najaf and Basra? Who would have banked on the Saudis being willing to do a UAE-sponsored deal with Ali Abdallah Saleh against the Houthis in Yemen, when they had vowed never to reconcile with him?

Veteran Turkish newspaper editor and close Erdogan confidant Ibrahim Karakul penned a series of articles last week in the daily Yeni Safak that reflect Ankara’s alarm at the fast-changing pace of regional alliances and the prospect of Turkey being marginalized in Syria and the Middle East as a whole, and even of being dismembered as a country. This is the backdrop to the Turkish president’s wooing of Jordan and Iran.

Karagul appeared to be preparing the public for a U-turn in the government’s regional policies, especially with regard to Syria. He called for Turkey to immediately mend relations with Syria and strengthen ties with Iraq in all fields, and to abandon the armed Syrian opposition and uphold Syria’s unity at all costs, as the division of Syria would lead to the division of Turkey. He spoke of an American conspiracy, supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies as well as Israel, to establish a Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern borders, which he described as an existential threat to the Turkish state as we have known it for the past century.

Karagul essentially called for the formation of an alliance between Turkey, Iran Iraq and Syria, with support from Russia, to counter the US-Saudi/UAE-Israeli alliance which he sees as being directed at both Iran and Turkey. And he affirmed that ‘the Syrian question’ is finished.

That means that the Syrian opposition, in both its political and military variants is finished. This may explain why the Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh failed to reach agreement on a joint political programme, and why Turkey and Qatar last month halted their monthly $350,000 allowance to cover the expenses of the Syrian National Coalition.

Asad’s  reference in his speech to the foiling of the Western project for Syria was not mere rhetoric or wishful thinking. It was based on a new and factual reading of the changes underway in the region and not just in Syria. True, the Syrian president had harsh words to say about his Turkish counterpart.  But we cannot rule out seeing the latter paying a visit to Damascus before too long, with Russian and/or Iranian mediation. Such is politics, and such are its ways.