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Turkey's changing Syria policy

Hilal Köylü
January 6, 2017

While the countdown to peace talks for the Syrian conflict continues, Turkey is signaling a change in its policy on the country. What are Ankara’s goals concerning Syria and what do the Astana talks mean?

Syrien Türkische Panzer
Image: picture alliance/abaca/E. Ozdemir

After reaching an agreement to start peace talks in Syria with Iran and Russia, Turkey is turning over a new leaf in its policy toward Syria. While accepting that President Bashar al-Assad's regime is one of the key players on the road to peace, Turkey believes that the civil war, which began in 2011, can only be solved through negotiations.

"In this belief, we have started negotiations with Iran and Russia," said a Turkish foreign ministry official, who underlined the importance of the meeting between Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow on December 20. "This was a very critical meeting. If we hadn’t come to an agreement, all hope of peace in Syria would’ve been lost." 

In fact, the meeting in Moscow paved the way for a ceasefire agreement in Syria. The peace talks will begin on January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Turkey, Iran and Russia acting as guarantors. Damascus will announce their delegation on January 15, and the opposition on January 16.

Tension between Iran and Turkey

Before the talks begin, Turkey will be busy with intense diplomatic contacts with Russia and Iran. The biggest uneasiness Ankara faces concerns the possibility of a violation of the ceasefire declared in Syria on December 30. The violations that started right after the declaration have turned that uneasiness into concern. Ankara believes that the violations have come mostly from Hezbollah, Shiite groups and regime forces and have voiced their concerns clearly. While Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on Iran "to be more effective on Shiite militias and regime forces," Iran declared that the ceasefire was violated by armed opposition groups. This shows how critically important the dialogue between Ankara and Tehran will be towards the success of the peace talks. Turkish foreign ministry officials speaking to DW said "the necessary warnings to Tehran have been made in a candid and gentle manner. We are trying to make sure there are no tensions during this process. We will continue to appeal to Tehran. If there is no peace, we will all lose."

Türkische Soldaten auf einem Panzer bei der Rückkehr von einem Einsatz in Syrien
Turkey launched the Euphrates Shield operation in 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E.Ozdemir

Turkey believes that the peace talks will also strengthen the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). Success of the continuing Euphrates Shield operation in Syria also seems to depend on the success of the peace talks. Foreign ministry officials underline the importance of the cooperation between the US under the Donald Trump administration as well.

Turkey’s criteria

Ankara's diplomatic efforts include "protecting Syria’s territorial integrity, having an administration that embraces all ethnicities and sects, and creating permanent peace." Can any of these be realized? Who is Turkey siding with in the field?

"Turkey has accepted the current regime as a key player and that the civil war can only be solved through negotiations," Syria expert Oytun Orhan, from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told DW. He pointed out that while Turkey’s priority in Syria is the fight against terror, it needs more Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers for the Euphrates Shield operation to be successful.

Russland Treffen zwischen Russland, Iran und Türkei in Moskau
Turkey, Russia and Iran are set to oversee peace talks in Kakazhstan on January 23Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Golovkin

"But at this point, Turkey needs to offer something to the Syrian opposition," Orhan added. "That’s why it wants to include them in the political expansion. As the area under the control of the Euphrates Shield expands, Turkey and the FSA’s need for more fighters increases. After Aleppo, there have been two forces in northern Syria: radical groups under the leadership of Fateh al-Sham based in Idlib, and the FSA constituents taking part in the Euphrates Shield operation in the Azaz-Jarablus line."

Front against the US and the YPG

According to Orhan, the agreement point concerning "Protection of the territorial integrity of Syria" will become an issue in the coming days. Since according to the agreement, a federal area under the control of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) will not be allowed in northern Syria, this means that a new front has been formed against US policy on the YPG. That front includes Iran, Turkey and Russia. "That is why Trump's policy will be very important," Orhan said. "Even though there are signs that the Trump administration will focus on the fight against the IS and this strengthens Turkey’s hand, a positive approach from the US to the YPG will also force Turkey’s hand."

USA Präsident Donald Trump
Trump's Syria policy 'will be very important'Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

 'A respectable withdrawal policy'

Huseyin Bagci, from the Middle East Technical University's International Relations Department, said that with the Astana talks, a new era had begun in Turkey’s policy on Syria.

"Turkey changed its policy on ousting Assad and turned it into a respectable withdrawal policy," he said.

Bagci also pointed out that Turkey being so flexible in its policy and taking part in the agreement is a very important step in achieving peace in the region.

"We can say that Russia will be taking the lead in the policy making during the talks," he said. "Turkey accepting to sit down with the Assad regime - even though it will not be with Assad himself, it will be with his delegation - will bring great changes to the region."