Much of the Washington foreign policy community stood aghast Tuesday as top officials of NATO ally Turkey sat down with leaders of Russia and Iran in Moscow to forge a new way forward for Syria, without the United States in the room. The scene was not only a turning point in the Syrian crisis but also a stunning display of Turkey’s shifting orientation towards Russia and away from America and the West.
There are several reasons why the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving steadily to align his country’s foreign policy with Moscow and away from Washington. His party came to power on an anti-Western platform, he faces domestic pressure to stand up to the United States and the recent coup attempt weakened his position overall. But President Obama’s failed Middle East policies, especially with regard to Syria, exacerbated all of those trends and set the stage for the latest developments.
As The Post editorial board noted Tuesday, the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara on Monday accelerated the warming of Turkish-Russian relations, rather than driving a wedge between the two countries, as the assassin perhaps intended. But the now public alliance is hardly a surprise to close watchers of Turkish foreign policy.
“Turkey’s drift from the transatlantic alliance and movement toward Russia and Iran has been in the making for a long time,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “For Erdogan, the United States has become irrelevant, because in the Middle East actions count more than rhetoric and from his perspective, Washington was more talk than action.”
The Moscow meeting on Syria followed the collapse of the latest diplomatic effort spearheaded by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which since February has focused on negotiating a series of cease-fires in Syria, most recently in Aleppo. Lavrov pointed to that failed process on Tuesday and declared that the new Russia-led format would be the center of gravity for Syria negotiations going forward.
“It is a statement of fact, the Russian-Iran-Turkey troika today has shown how efficient it is through practical action,” he said. Lavrov said the U.S.-led format, known as the International Syria Support Group, has failed to implement any of its initiatives, and he blamed the United States for the failure of the cease-fire agreement he and Kerry struck in September.
Sitting next to him, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was forced to agree with Lavrov’s analysis.
“We believe the best format is the one in which decisions are taken and are carried out,” he said. “Unfortunately none of these decisions were actually implemented and the situation is worsening.”
Lavrov then declared that there was now a consensus that regime change should not be the priority in Syria, and he read a joint declaration by the three foreign ministers that affirmed a dedication to Syrian sovereignty, territorial integrity, opposition to terrorism and commitment to a secular and pluralistic Syrian political structure. There was no mention about the fate of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“Yesterday’s declaration is quite shocking. It’s diametrically opposite to what Turkey has been arguing vis-a-vis Syria since 2011,” said Erdemir. “This is basically Turkey coming to accept Assad.”
For years, Turkey tried to work with the Obama administration on Syria but was rebuffed again and again. Repeated attempts by U.S. officials to strike an agreement with Turkey to fight jointly against the Islamic State and coordinate efforts to support the Syrian opposition fell apart, mostly due to the Obama White House’s reluctance to commit to Turkey’s call for a no-fly zone in northern Syria and more pressure on the Assad regime.
Adding to bilateral tensions, U.S. support for a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mostly of Kurdish fighters, was seen by Turkey as propping up armed groups that are aligned with Kurdish terrorists in Turkey. Kurdish gains in northern Syria prompted Turkey to intervene militarily to prevent the Kurds from connecting their two territories and creating one de facto Kurdish state.
As part of that intervention, Turkey sought the tacit approval of Russia and reportedly agreed in October to tamp down opposition to Russian actions in Aleppo. That agreement set the stage for further cooperation between Turkey and Russia. Absent any real initiative from the outgoing Obama administration, Turkey then decided to take its cooperation with Russia to the next level.
“The Turks looked at the situation and said to themselves, ‘This administration doesn’t want to deal with Syria. We’re going to wait for the next one. Meanwhile lets see what can be done with the Russians,’” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Everybody sees the Obama administration as completely feckless, and we are now out of the room.”
The next step, according to Moscow, is for the Syrian government and some approved members of the opposition to meet in Kazakhstan and negotiate further cease-fires. The United States is also not invited to participate in that process.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that Kerry has no problem with the fate of Syria being decided without U.S. participation and on terms largely dictated by Russia and Iran.
“The secretary doesn’t see this as a snub at all,” he said. “If not having us in the room can lead to finally a cessation of hostilities that can actually matter over a period of time and over a greater geographical area than what we’ve seen in the past, that can actually get humanitarian aid to people and can resume political talks, the secretary is perfectly fine with him not being in the room if that’s the result of this.”
The problem is, the new Russia-led process in Syria has little chance of achieving a wider peace or producing a real political settlement. Turkey may agree to halt support for several opposition groups fighting Assad, allowing the Syrian government to maintain better control over Aleppo and other conquered areas. But the overstretched Syrian Army will not be able to extend its territory much further.
Russia, which defines all non-sanctioned opposition as terrorist groups, will likely continue its military assault on rebel-held areas, moving next perhaps to Idlib. Whatever political agreement the sanctioned opposition signs onto in Kazakhstan can never be implemented on the ground. Meanwhile, the outgoing Obama administration seems to have no plan to reassert its influence in the region nor provide Turkey any incentive to reverse its reorientation away from the West.
The incoming Donald Trump administration may decide to accept a Russian-led diplomatic process for Syria as a fait accompli. But they must not accept the disintegration of Turkey’s relationship with the West as part of that bargain. Through an increased U.S. commitment to the region accompanied by a reset of American-Turkish relationship, Ankara’s slide away from its Western allies can be reversed.
That reset should include a frank discussion about Erdogan’s use of the United States as a scapegoat for the coup and other domestic problems. It should also include a call for Erdogan to recommit to values including human rights and the rule of law. In the long run, Turkey is better off with the United States and NATO than with Russia and Iran, but it will only accept that if U.S. credibility in the region is restored.