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Kurdistan

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

This map, produced by pro-gov. Syrian group, hints
to Syria’s claim over most of Hatay province, could explain
the strategy for dealing with Idlib.
There are historical and political reasons for Turkey’s determination to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. However, Turkey’s government might be nervous not just because of the Kurdish separatist aspirations, but also because of its long territorial dispute with the Syrian government, which considers most of Hatay province (Iskenderun) Syrian territory. Looking at the military strategy the Syria government has put in place since the start of its military campaign to regain lost territory, it would appear that the Syrian government wants to address its sovereignty claim over Iskenderun in the context of this armed conflict, in which Turkey has been deeply involved politically and militarily. Turkey, on the other hand, given its erratic decisions related to the Syrian crisis and given its fickle alliances, finds itself alone, abandoned by old allies, Saudi Arabia and the US, and untrusted by its new one, Russia and Iran.

 
First, Turkey’s government knows that a sovereign and united Kurdistan with access to international waters is a formidable one. A landlocked Kurdistan will depend on the goodwill of its neighbors to have access to international markets and to the global community in general. But a Kurdistan stretching from the Iraqi-Iranian border in the east to the Mediterranean in the west is viable, strong, and rich. Turkey, more than all its neighbors is threatened by this prospect for many obvious reasons. That is why Turkey feels the need to act now before a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which might result in the creation of a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria, is reached. 
 
Second, it must be noted that Hatay province is inhabited by diverse ethnic and religious groups, but Arabs and Alevis are a majority in its population of nearly 1.5 million people. The region, therefore, despite being under Turkish control, is strongly pro-Syrian government and throughout the Syrian crisis period, many of its people demonstrated in support of the Syrian government.
 
Third, nearly 500,000 Syrians were displaced by the violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and these displaced people settled in Hatay province. Moreover, the province borders the very volatile Idlib province that has been a relocation destination for all armed groups who chose not to enter into “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian government. Idlib is controlled primarily by the powerful Islamist factions supported by Turkey and Qatar, mainly Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). 
 
Most recently, a number of factions defected from Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS making it the largest Islamist armed group in northern Syria. Parts of Idlib has been designated by the agreement (sponsored by Turkey, Russia, and Iran) as reduced violence zone. However, Russia has insisted all along that all de-escalation zones must exclude terrorist organization and, in the case of Idlib, given its proximity and connection to Turkey, Russia asked Turkey to dissolve or liquidate HTS. Turkey failed to do so, choosing instead to prioritize fighting Kurdish armed groups over fighting HTS and its affiliates. That development initiated a series of other events leading to the current situation. 
 
First, the Syrian government and its allies determined that Turkey has failed to deal with terrorist organizations in Idlib. The government, aided with Russian air force and allied troops, launched a multi-front offensive from the eastern regions under its control and appears to be moving westward. Today, the Syrian government announced full control of Abu Duhu airbase, a large strategic military facility, nearly 16 km2 at the intersection of three key provinces—Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo, that can be used to launch future operations deeper into all three provinces. 
 
Turkey moved troops to some points in Syria and began a military campaign against the Kurds in Afrin. Meanwhile, the US shifted its support to Kurds from assistance to defeat ISIS to training and equipping a permanent military force that it called border control units, which angered the Turkish government and raised some questions about the legality of US presence in Syria without clear UNSC or government authorization. 
 
The Syrian government’s long term strategy is now revealed by its actions on the ground. It appears to involve military campaign to clear internal regions and relocate the diehard armed groups to Idlib with the intent to ultimately force them into Hatay province. Once there, they will be Turkey’s problem to deal with them on its own or enter into an agreement with the Syrian government to settle the border dispute and accommodate the people living therein. That is an impressive long-term strategy, unlike Turkey’s, involving trusted, reliable regional and international allies. 
 
Turkey on the other hand, did not seem to have had a long-term strategy. That fact can be deduced from its erratic alliances. First it joined the anti-Assad coalition led by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and several EU states. Then it joined the anti-ISIS coalition led by the US. Finally, it turned to Russia and Iran. But in the end, and with its Afrin operation, Turkey finds itself alone. Turkey, now, must deal with the ramifications of a crisis that it helped create but failed to control its outcome. Syria, on the other hand, may end up regaining control over disputed border territory or use it to settle its undesirables and all foreign fighters who came to support them. A Hatay province under Turkish control but full of diehard zealots will continue to be a threat to Turkish security and stability–in fact, more so than the imagined or real Kurdish threat.

 
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated. For more information, please visit: http://www.ahmedsouaiaia.com

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A Kurdish referendum, now, is counterproductive

A Kurdish referendum, now, is counterproductive

There is no doubt that the Kurdish people, like any other ethnic and linguistic community of their size, have a legitimate claim to self-determination. The Kurdish people in all five countries where they have a sizable population and in the diaspora, are more than 35 million people. Were they able to form a nation of their own right after the end of the colonial era, their country would have been the third most populous country in the region. But the powers to be did not allow that to happen. Their claim to nationhood still stands as a legitimate one.

However, the timing of the referendum, the lack of preparation for it in terms of diplomatic support, and the special circumstances of the region all made this decision a very poor one. It may have been motivated by personal impulses than by the urgency to secure the rights of the Kurdish people.
  
Masoud Barzani, the main proponent of the referendum, is an echo from Saddam’s era. His term in office ended years ago yet he persists to hold power. The regional government has had serious economic challenges and without Turkey’s eagerness to buy energy directly from the regional government, bypassing the central Iraqi government, the Kurdish economy would have collapsed two years ago. 
Since ISIS took over large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Kurdish fighters, with the help of anti-ISIS coalitions, pushed back ISIS only to claim the cleared territory as their own. This alone diminishes from the appeal of self-determination claim that the Kurds have asserted because it makes them appear as an aggressive expansionist regime that is willing to take advantage of the dire situation in Iraq and Syria.

The expansion, is bad public relation statement and shortsighted. Evidently, the newly acquired territories bring with it non-Kurdish populations, Arab, Turkmen, Persian, Armenian, etc. who will be made minorities dominated by a government that privileges and prioritizes Kurdish nationalism—creating new fault lines for protracted conflicts.
Kurdish political leaders ought to learn from the case of South Sudan. Prior to the division of Sudan, the conflict was made to appear as a conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south, the Arab north and the African south. Since independence, the civil war in South Sudan became worse and the economic conditions of the landlocked territory became dire. Similarly, a landlocked Kurdistan in northern Iraq will make life for Kurds in the other four countries harder, and the potential civil war within Kurdistan in Iraq will increase. Turkey, by virtue of being home to the largest number of Kurds in the region will choke the Kurdish enclave and treat its own Kurdish population with even more hostility.
It is one thing to be supportive of disempowered communities and stand by any people who seek a life where they can live with dignity and respect. But Masoud Barzani used the Kurdish dream for self-determination to make a reckless decision that will, without doubt, make life for all Kurds harder and their fight for a better life even more costly. He failed to win the support of a single influential nation and made it harder for NGO’s and activists to continue their support of the Kurdish people. It is unfortunate that one man, whose term in office has run long ago, has risked the dream of so all, the Kurds, including those outside Iraq.

“No Place for Assad” is not a Plan

“No Place for Assad” is not a Plan

Syrian troops who took part in Deir Ezzor battle against ISIL
The so-called Syrian opposition and their Arab and Western governments’ backers are responsible for the failure in realizing a political transition towards broader representative governance. Now that even the strongest armed militant groups are facing defeat, the possibility of seeing these various opposition groups and personalities exert any significant role in shaping the political future of Syria is non-existent.

It should be noted that the peaceful protest movement that preceded the armed conflict did not set its agenda the overthrow of the Syrian government of even insist that Bashar Assad be ousted. Ousting Assad was primarily the dream of armed groups, especially the Wahhabi-Salafists, and some Arab and Western governments who don’t believe in any form of government except theirs.  They thought that the wave of anger that ousted Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, respectively, could be leveraged to rid the Middle East of those who did not fall inline and accept the oversized roles played by undemocratic, authoritarian rulers of the rich Gulf nations. After all, that strategy worked in Libya when Qatar, backed by NATO nations, financed and armed a ragtag of rebels to overthrow the mercurial, unreliable Mu`ammar Qaddafi. 

For seven years, money and weapons were poured into Syria with the singular objective in the mind and in the mouth of all those opposed to the Syrian government: There is no place for Assad in Syria. That singular goal meant that all those opposed to Assad are lesser “threats” than Assad, including ISIL and Nusra. When Assad outlasted many of the heads of these anti-Assad governments, Like Cameron, Hollande, Davutoğlu, Hamad, and Obama, many realized that “No place for Assad in Syria” is not actually a political platform or plan. 

The French president who replaced one of France’s least competent leaders admitted that much when he acknowledged that “there is no credible or capable alternative to Assad.” But even that view, accurate as it may be, does not represent the full truth. 

Syria is not a one-man show kind of country that can be compared to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, or UAE. Syria, despite the fact that it has been ruled by a single party, is a nation of institutions and fairly sophisticated civil society. It has a professional military, very efficient bureaucracy, highly educated citizens, diverse and inclusive society, and durably functioning political process and more. That reality might explain the fact that, even during the times when the Syrian government’s hold on power was weakest, major Syrian cities remained loyal to the Syrian state.


So it is no surprise now that, when the Syrian government has regained control over nearly 65% of the country, that the political opposition groups are having hard time finding international sponsors. Even the UN sponsored talks that were routinely held are now less frequent, if not fully absent. The hubris of the opposition groups and its leaders perverted belief that undemocratic regimes like those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or UAE would be reliable partners to help them establish a modern Athenian democracy in Syria are stunning. Their bet on self-interested and authoritarian regimes betrayed the hopes of the Syrian people for stronger Syria and produced a destroyed country that will need nearly half a trillion dollar to rebuild, and decades to heal from a war that touched, through death or injury, every Syrian family. 
  

Syria Control Map as of 09/05/2017

The Syrian government recently breached the 3-year old siege ISIL imposed on Deir Ezzor

What went wrong with Turkey’s referendum?

What went wrong with Turkey’s referendum?

Ayla Gol*

Turkey has missed an historical opportunity to prove that liberal democracy could work in a Muslim country. On Sunday, the 16th of April, over 50 million people voted in a public referendum and approved a constitutional change leading to a stronger presidency with extended powers. The voters had two options in the ballot boxes for an executive presidency (Cumhurbaşkanlığı sistemi): Yes or No. Results released by the state-run Anadolu Agency were that 51.4% voted ‘yes’ to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentarian democracy to a presidential one.

In the three largest cities – the capital Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir – as well as in the mainly Kurdish southeast Anatolia, the majority said ‘no’. The main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) are preparing to contest the results within the period of objection.

There is one clear result after the referendum: Turkey is a deeply polarized country with a bitterly divided nation. Polarization has always been part of Turkish society but has never been as visible as it is now: pious and seculars; Turks and Kurds; Istanbulians (Istanbullular) and others, Europeans and Anatolians; and most recently women with and without headscarves, are the best examples. The rift between secularists and Islamists has become the main fault-line in Turkish politics under the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) rule. Post-referendum controversies indicate that the AKP miserably failed ‘the test of democratic change’ in a Muslim country.
The referendum’s legitimacy in question

Turkey’s referendum was free but unfair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Turkey is a member state, criticized the pre-referendum conditions that gave a disproportionate share of media coverage. The ‘no’ campaign was silenced since the pro-Kurdish party’s co-leaders, Selahittin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, were arrested in November 2016. European human rights observers stated that the referendum failed the marks on international standards expected by the Council of Europe due to irregularities and late changes in the voting system. The European Union (EU) questioned the legitimacy of the referendum and recommended Turkey to investigate the irregularities. Meanwhile, the US President Donald Trump congratulated President Recep Tayip Erdoğan. Mr Erdoğan immediately gave his victory speech on the referendum night and thanked all voters. He also said that Turkey ‘does not see, hear, or acknowledge the reports by the OSCE observer mission.’

According to Erdoğan, the change now opens the path to a much more rapid development so that Turkey will become a more democratic, secure and stable country. Many of us doubt this. There is no question that the current constitution, which was accepted after the military coup of 1980, needs to be amended but not in an illiberal way. I argue that the changes in the constitution embody the illiberal democracy of AKP’s political Islam and nationalist authoritarianism.

Turkey is a country full of paradoxes and contradictions. When the pro-Islamic AKP first came to power in 2002, Turkey was seen as a shining example of a secular democracy in the Muslim world. The AKP has ruled the country since then. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, it has achieved an exemplary economic development, tackled with ‘a state within a state’ (deep state) bureaucracy and clamped the military’s power while engaging with a peace process with the Kurds during the early days of the AKP governance. In 2017, none of these achievements is sustainable. Turkey is no longer a country governed democratically.
The failed coup of July 2016 as a catalyst

Within the last 94 years of its modern history, Turkey has suffered from military coups almost every decade, including the failed attempt of July 2016. The debates on changing Turkey’s political system to an executive presidency also had been on the agenda since the 1970s. Turkey’s previous presidents Turgut özal and Süleyman Demirel, who both had direct experience of military coups, initiated the debate that a presidential system similar to the US could address the ‘compelling issues’ that haunted the country for decades. We still do not know who was the mastermind of the failed coup attempt but Erdoğan points to the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who participated in Turkish politics in the 1970s and lives in exile in the USA since 1999. Within the last nine months, around 50,000 people have been arrested and over 100,000 state officers were fired because of presumed connections with the Gülenist movement. The country is governed under a state of emergency with fear and an ongoing purge.

Following the debates of özal and Demirel, President Erdoğan put the idea of change to a presidential system into practice. The crucial step was taken earlier in 2007 when the Turkish constitution was modified to have a public referendum on the presidency, but the failed coup attempt in July 2016 has acted as a catalyst for change. For Erdoğan, the change is essential to protect not only democracy from shadowy forces within, such as the deep state and the Gülen supporters, but also the unity of the country and the ‘Turkish nation’ against the outside security threats of the Islamic State jihadists and the Kurdish separatist groups in the Middle East. The irony is that both Erdoğan and his opponents argue in the name of protecting Turkey’s national interests and democratic future.
The poverty of democracy in Turkey

Since the transition to a multi-party system in 1950 Turkey has been on a trial whether or not a western type of democracy can be consolidated in a Muslim country. As argued in some of the literature on the subject, “in the west, democracy has meant liberal democracy – a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property”. Despite ‘free and fair elections’, Turkey is no longer governed by the rule of law: it holds the highest number of journalists, academics, judges, and lawyers in jail since the failed coup of July 2016.

Turkey’s main problem is the poverty of its democracy in a deeply polarized society. Secular, leftists and Kurdish groups not only said ‘no’ to the presidential system but have also voiced criticism saying that Turkey has never been a fully-fledged democracy with the protection of basic liberties.

Although Turkey’s current political system is imperfect, nevertheless political power is not concentrated in the hands of one-man because checks and balances operate through the separation of powers: the head of government (the prime minister) and the head of the state (the president) are two different people; the president is neutral without any political party ties and role; the executive branch of the government derives its legitimacy from its ability to command the confidence of the legislature; the power of two branches (executive and legislative) is balanced by an impartial judiciary. The separation of powers is protected by the constitution. Historically, constitutions are essential to establish the rules of a social contract as to how power is exercised within the state. In general, constitutions evolve to reflect the progressive change of societies but, unfortunately, this trend is going backwards in Turkey.

The package of 18 constitutional amendments has passed to abolish the post of prime minister; the president can keep ties with political parties, have the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency; and will issue decrees to appoint ministries without parliamentary approval. More importantly, the impartiality of the judiciary branch suffers the most, as the presidency will have broad authority over the high council of judges and prosecutors. All these changes lead to the concentration of political power in the hands of one individual, president Erdoğan, with weakened checks and balances. In short, by eliminating the separation of powers and the impartiality of the judiciary, these changes reverse Turkey into illiberal democracy and increase Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.
Illiberal democracy and authoritarian nationalism

For some of us, this was an expected result given the fact that ‘illiberal democracies have become more the norm than the exception’ in many countries with different cultures and religions. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is not a new type of political Islam and but old school nationalism combined with illiberal democracy, just like Putin in Russia and Modi in India. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has nothing to do with Islam but uses religion supported by the ideology of Turkish nationalism. The main obstacles blocking Turkey’s democratic path are set up by the founding paranoia of the state about its enemies outside and its distrust of ethnic minorities inside. This nationalist tradition has been ruling the country, both in the name of conservatism and religion. In practice, Erdoğan has been in power for the last 14 years and mastered the paranoia of inside and outside enemies by using nationalist and anti-western discourses.

The referendum was about confidence in Erdoğan. One of the crucial changes that Erdoğan promised in October 2016 after the failed military coup is reinstating capital punishment. As one of the pre-conditions of its EU membership, Turkey abolished capital punishment legally in 2004. The AKP government promised to present a draft law reinstating the death penalty in Turkey and Erdoğan promised to approve it immediately after the referendum. It is a response to the nationalist and populist protests calling for the hanging of Fethullah Gülen and the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah öcalan. For Erdoğan, it will send strong messages to Turkey’s enemies inside – Gülenists and separatist Kurds – and the enemies outside which he describes as the west’s ‘crusader mentality’. On the contrary, for his critics, this will widen the gap in a peace process with the Kurds. For Turkey’s EU membership, the abolition of capital punishment is a red line. Turkey has never been further away from its European path in its history and will reverse faster into illiberal democracy.

There is no doubt that authoritarian nationalism and populism continue to leech on the weaknesses of majoritarian politics. The 51% majority of voters decided to allow Erdoğan to remain in power possibly as late as until 2029, in other words being ruled by the same leader for 30 years, as it was under the Ottoman sultans. Moreover, majoritarian politics is a double-edged sword in a marginally divided country, like Turkey. Will Erdoğan continue to polarise the society, oppress the opposition and ignore the other half of society? Within the next two years, in November 2019 and probably earlier, presidential and parliamentary elections must be held. Once again, the majority of people – Turks and Kurds – will have time to observe how Erdoğan will use his extended powers in the coming months. In other words, a lot is at stake under the one-man rule for Turkey’s future, including for Erdoğan himself. The question is whether Turkish society has reached a level of maturity to distinguish liberal democracy from illiberal one or not.

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* Ayla Gol is a Reader and Director of Graduate School at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University. She is the author of Turkey Facing East: Islam, Modernity and Foreign Policy.

Could the Cessation of Hostilities help U.S. and Russia overcome their differences on Syria?

Could the Cessation of Hostilities help U.S. and Russia overcome their differences on Syria?


by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

 

ISIL fighters
It is evident at this point that Syria’s war is not a civil war. It is a world war and now the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia emerged out of the shadows of their regional allies to take charge. Early this year, the two countries reached an agreement called Cessation of Hostilities (CH), initially effecting select cities but open to be applied across Syria.  The Cessation of Hostilities is simply a bilateral understanding between the U.S. and Russia. It is not a peace accord nor is it an armistice. It is something in between necessitated by the complex map of groups fighting the Syrian government. This CH automatically excluded any and all groups labelled terrorists by the UNSC, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its offshoot, al-Nusra Front. In theory, any armed opposition group can be party to this deal provided its members–or a representative thereof–contact monitoring centers staffed by Russian personnel, since Americans are not authorized by the Syrian government to be on Syrian soil, overtly at least. The deal worked in bring some calm to some areas and gave many Syrians some hope.

Earlier, al-Nusra Front, fearing isolation, merged with other groups forming Jaysh al-Fath. With the start of the CH regime on February 27, 2016, al-Nusra used this alliance to launch attacks in northern Syria, virtually collapsing the CH regime. This week, Secretary Kerry announced a new plan, perhaps just and updated one, that could put Syria back on track for a political solution. It might actually work. There are a number of reasons for our optimism.
One of the main reasons behind the failure to solve the crisis in Syria lies in the nature, composition, and regional sponsors of the Syrian opposition. The strongest opposition groups are extremist Salafists and fighters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The three main supporters of the Syrian opposition fighters, Qatar and Turkey (strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Saudi Arabia (sponsor of Salafism), have insisted from the start that the overthrow of Assad supersedes the defeat of al-Qaeda and its derivatives (mainly ISIL, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam). These three countries have principally nothing in common except their shared disdain for Assad. Consequently, their alliance of convenience could not last. So it did not.
Within a year or so, and seeing that Russia and China twice blocked UNSC resolutions that could have authorized the use of force against the Syrian government, the Qatari ruler, Hamad Ibn Khalifa Al Thani, realized that that path he has taken was very difficult. The Emir abdicated and transferred power to his son, Tamim. This move offered the tiny but influential country a way out of a crisis it cannot manage and left Saudi Arabia and Turkey leading the efforts to overthrow Assad.
Initially, these two countries, despite their differences over the status of the regime in Egypt and position on the Muslim Brotherhood politics and ideology, decided to stay united on Syria. Their strategy consisted of continued support to rebel groups, initially organized under a loose umbrella organization called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting under the green and black flag, to ensure the fall of the Syrian government, not weaken any of them. The transfer of arms and money supposedly to the FSA, somehow, benefitted al-Nusra and ISIL, too. Within months from the start of the armed conflict, the FSA became all but a shell that provided cover to ISIL and al-Nusra. When the latter two groups grew confident and self-sufficient, they abandoned the FSA flag, raising their own black flags over large territories, forcing FSA groups out.  
When ISIL declared its caliphate and took control of key cities and provinces in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. formed a coalition dedicated to fighting ISIL, essentially creating two kinds of opposition groups in Syria: ISIL and the “legitimate opposition.” However, the U.S. and its allies conveniently avoided defining “legitimate” opposition.
In theory, this coalition was to fight ISIL, exclusively. In reality, the this coalition has had two objectives. The coalition bombed ISIL territories from the air, but also provided weapons and training for the so-called “moderate rebels” who would fight both–the Syrian government and ISIL. The efforts paid off on both fronts. While the air campaign limited ISIL advances, the influx of sophisticated weapons to “moderate” fighters, including al-Nusra, allowed them to take over territories previously under government control, threatening even Assad’s stronghold, Syria’s coastal region. This prompted Russia to send troops and airplanes, upon a request from Assad, to help him regain control of the territories his troops lost. He did regain control within about five months. Russia’s intervention created a new balance of power. Importantly, it also offered the anti-ISIL coalition a channel through which to talk to the Syrian government.
The Russian intervention in Syria created a unique challenge for Turkey, especially, since it benefited from Syria’s oil sold by ISIL and was able to limit Kurdish gains. Russia’s intervention strengthened the Syrian Kurds and shut down the flow of Syrian oil. Turkey, reacted angrily, shooting down a Russia bomber near its border with Syria, prompting President Putin to impose crippling economic sanctions and grounding Turkish planes with the insertion of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system. These measures forced Turkey’s powerful president to rethink his approach to the Syrian crisis. After nearly five months of refusing to apologize for the incident, Erdogan sent a letter to Putin doing just that and urging Putin to normalize relations. Putin obliged, lifting the ban on travel to Turkey and promising to consider other steps once Turkish authorities take actual steps to address other concerns.
Turkey’s economic and security woes, made real by the July 15 failed coup, have forced the Turkish president to speed up his rapprochement with Russia. His office announced that he will travel to Saint Petersburg on August 9, where he will meet Putin to put their bilateral relations back on track. However, normalizing relations with Russia necessarily requires Turkey to drop its demand for overthrowing Assad and fight terrorism instead. That much was made clear by the Russian leaders upon receiving Erdogan’s letter of apology. Erdogan’s unhappiness with U.S. and European governments may compel him to, minimally take a neutral position regarding the fate of Assad, or side with Russia to maximize return from his overture on Russia. Either of those outcomes will reduce the anti-Assad alliance to one country, Saudi Araba.
The shift in Turkey’s position on Syria is making the rulers of Saudi Arabia nervous since they will be the only ones insisting on prioritizing ousting Assad over fighting terrorist entities. Signs that Saudi Arabia is feeling the isolation already emerged during the last Arab League Summit held this week in Mauritania. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have set the agenda and tone of the outcome of the League’s summit in the past five years. This time, however, Saudi Arabia failed not only to have the Syrian opposition represent Syria during the meeting, but also failed to convince the League to invite it even as observer–a huge change compared to the summit held in Qatar when Syria’s seat was filled by the head of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib.
In addition to this game-changer event involving Turkey, a couple of other events created new conditions that are forcing key parties to the armed conflict in Syria to adjust their roles and expectations.
First, Iraq’s success in retaking Fallujah in a relatively short fight against ISIL dispelled the notion of invincibility projected by that puritan group and its supporters. Should the Iraqi forces succeed in retaking Mosul, ISIL will be practically out of Iraq and will resort to suicidal terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians. Without dislodging ISIL from major cities in Syria, the threat of terrorist attacks will be significant. Moreover, Iraqi gains could be easily reversed should ISIL remain in control of cities and towns along the Syrian borders. Iraqi leaders know this and to prevent that from happening, they announced that they will work with the Syrian government to help the latter retake the city of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
Second, the rise of the number of terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S., and other countries is forcing more people in countries that ignored ISIL in the past to push their governments to focus on fighting terrorism–not on overthrowing the Syrian government.
These significant changes are keeping U.S. top diplomat, Secretary Kerry, very busy adjusting U.S. strategy on Syria. He travelled to Russia spending about ten hours with Putin and an additional four hours with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. On Tuesday, Kerry said that he will be in a position to announce a robust plan for coordinating efforts with Russia on Syria early next month, signaling the significance of the agreement he reached with the Russian leaders, which would require review and approval by his boss, President Obama, and national security policymakers.
The outstanding problem between the U.S. and Russia has been the lack of coordination of military efforts fighting terrorism in Syria. The U.S. and its allies are insisting on limiting military strikes to ISIL. Russia wants to fight ISIL and other terrorist groups, including al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Although the U.S. recognizes al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, it had not targeted it, perhaps out of respect for some of its allies who are known supporters of al-Nusra and the allies of al-Nusra.
Publicly however, the U.S. administration justified its exclusion of al-Nusra from military strikes by arguing that territories controlled by al-Nusra and “legitimate” opposition are mixed. Russia is not convinced because it is using a different standard. Russian leaders want the Cessations of Hostilities regime to be the determining factor of who should be targeted and who should not be targeted. They argue that if the opposition groups are committed to a political solution, they should stop fighting and move out of the areas controlled by fighters who reject a political solution. The new plan, which will include at least part of Russia’s reasoning, will enable U.S. and Russia to bypass their differences over the identity of terrorist entities and the fate of Assad. Should the new plan use this criterion, terrorist groups will not be able to avoid being targeted by changing their names or breaking their public affiliation with known terrorist organizations.
A new strategy that takes into considerations these complex issues would replace the untenable, self-serving one proposed by the backers of the opposition groups who argued that the Syrian regime will not agree to a political solution unless the opposition forces gain the upper hand.  Five years of relying on a strategy of indiscriminately arming and assisting all groups fighting the Syrian government forces to attain that questionable goal did not work. A strategy that calls on a political dialogue involving only groups that agree to Cessations of Hostilities might work. This strategy could even allow U.S. and Russian military to work together on stabilizing a region in so much need for peace and development.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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