Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down for six years, surviving through thin and thick of a brutal war in his country, cost Turkey a lot. But it seems Ankara is getting comfortable with the idea that Mr. Assad is there to stay.
It was Ankara after all that helped Russia capture eastern Aleppo last month and pushed through peace talks that will bring stakeholders in the conflict together in Astana next week. Mehmet Simsek, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, acknowledged this week in Davos that Turkey can no longer insist on Mr. Assad’s exit because “facts of the ground” changed dramatically.
Turkish foreign policy toward Syria has never been ambivalent — Turkey was consistent from the start that Mr. Assad lost his legitimacy and that he must go. Ankara has always been close to rebels and the patron of the Syrian opposition. The rebels formed their exiled political opposition in Turkey. Turkish leaders helped coordinate international diplomatic backing and assistance for militants on the ground. Turkey had been the most important supply line for men and equipment for groups fighting against Mr. Assad’s forces in Syria. But since Turkey’s dramatic reconciliation with Russia, this was poised to change.
Russian-Turkish alliance is hardly a relationship made in heaven. They have been historical adversaries and Turkey is an important NATO ally. Until a few months ago, Russia and Turkey were at each other’s throats. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane in 2015. Moscow also encircled Turkey in military terms — increased navy presence in Black Sea, installed anti-aircraft defense systems right on the Turkish border in Syria and reinforced its military base in Armenia, just few miles from the Turkish border. Cornered, Turkey had to capitulate.
Just two weeks before the failed military coup last July, Mr. Erdogan sent a letter to Kremlin and apologized for shooting down the Russian plane. Moscow lifted most of the sanctions, encouraged Russians to visit Turkey as tourists and ganged up with Turkey to clear Aleppo from rebels.
Increasing Russian-Turkish military cooperation also challenged the U.S. fight against Islamic State. U.S. airfield Incirlik in southern Turkey also came under threat, with pro-government talking heads asking why the airbase is open since the U.S. did not give air cover to Turkish troops bogged down in northern Syrian town called al-Bab.
The fall of Aleppo capped Mr. Assad’s offensive to clear rebels from major cities, including capital Damascus. With only Idlib left to rebels and with the Turkish army struggling to capture al-Bab, Ankara has started cozying up to the idea that the Syrian president may remain.
Mr. Erdogan significantly underestimated Mr. Assad’s capability to defy international pressure and survive. Pitting major powers such as Russia and the U.S. against each other is Mr. Assad’s favorite pastime after all. Turkey was caught up in this scuffle and had to choose Moscow as an ally in Syria. Ankara’s frustration with the U.S., which thought the Syrian conflict was not threatening enough to merit the use of force, also contributed to Mr. Erdogan’s decision to jump on the Russian bandwagon.
For a leadership that has bashed the Syrian regime so frequently is hard to step back and declare a defeat. Now Mr. Erdogan is facing a difficult task of gearing new Syrian realities into its own internal rhythm.
Turkey’s retreat in its crusade against Mr. Assad is first floated by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim last year, just days after Mr. Erdogan apologized to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Confronted with criticism, Mr. Yildirim had to withdraw his remarks and made sure to put “murderer” before Mr. Assad’s name.
Mr. Simsek’s statement this week that Turkey can no longer insist on Assad’s departure was first denied by his office. After the video recording of his statement had been published, Turkish authorities claimed that his words were taken out of context.
It is still inconceivable that Ankara may abandon its plot to get rid of Mr. Assad. Mr. Erdogan’s part-time job to oust Mr. Assad created parallel challenges for his country that is struggling against terrorism and trying to contain brewing financial crisis. It was the Syrian president’s plight to survive that cost Turkey too much.
Turkey is now housing nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, creating a social, economic, political and cultural burden for the local people. The war in Syria enabled Syrian Kurdish militia to build its own autonomous statelet on Turkey’s border. ISIS thrived on the power vacuum in Syria and lawless territories became an incubator for extremists. The ISIS transformed its wicked ideology into an instrument of political control in Iraq and Syria while it inspired its militants to wreck havoc in Turkish cities. As if Turkey’s woes were not enough, the Turkish army was also sucked into Syrian quagmire. It lost another 5 Turkish troops near al-Bab on Friday, pushing the total death toll over 50 since the military campaign started in August last year.