The common understanding reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran at two recent meetings on the Syrian issue may herald a turning point in the six-year-long Syrian civil war.
On Dec 20, foreign and defense ministers from the three countries held separate meetings to discuss domestic conflicts and the anti-terrorism war in Syria and announced that they would cooperate for a settlement of the Syrian issue.
Since the Syria crisis broke out in 2011, the international community has split into two confronting camps. One is headed by Russia and those groups who support the Assad regime, including Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah forces. The other, headed by the United States, comprises Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Middle East countries, who support the opposition. The confrontation between the two camps has turned the armed conflicts between the Syrian government and opposition forces into an international proxy war over whether Bashar al-Asad and his Shiite regime should stay or go.
The chaotic situation in Syria presented opportunities for several terrorist forces to enter the country in the name of toppling Assad’s secular regime. Besides old-line terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda, there emerged an unprecedentedly formidable terrorist organization – the “Islamic State”, or ISIS as is commonly known. In the past few years, more than 30,000 extremists came to the opposition-controlled regions from across the world via the Turkey-Syria border. The extremist forces set up bases in Syria to propagate jihad theories, recruit members, raise fund, acquire weaponry and build jihad internet.
In the early days of the Syrian civil war, the US-led Western camp banked on the result of the “Arab Spring,” flaunting the banners of democracy, freedom and human rights, to openly support the opposition forces, which soon achieved some military prevalence over the Assad regime. The momentum was so strong that even Assad’s die-hard allies – Russia and Iran – dared not come to his rescue by military means.
However, the Obama administration obviously underestimated the importance of Syria in the Middle East political landscape. Due to his eagerness to initiate the “pivot to Asia” strategy, he behaved overcautiously on the Syrian issue and failed to produce an effective solution in time, thus missing the best opportunity of controlling the Syrian situation. First, the US and its European allies’ overt as well as behind-the-scene support not only failed to help the Syrian opposition grow into an effective counterbalance to the Syrian government, but also saw the situation swing out of control, leading to humanitarian disasters and a security crisis. Second, the air strikes on ISIS launched by the Western camp since September 2014 failed to stop it from growing and spreading. Even Belgium, France and Germany in the heart of Europe suffered frequent terrorist attacks related to ISIS.
On Sept 30, 2015, Russia stepped into the Syrian war in the name of striking at ISIS, tipping the balance on the battlefield in favor of Damascus. The Syrian government forces launched counterattacks while the Western allied forces gradually lost their initiative. Turkey, a key member of the Western alliance, began to rethink its policy on the Syrian issue. Previously it had been very active in the attempt to overthrow the Assad regime and check the expansion of Iran and Shiite forces in the region. Then the fast growth of ISIS and Western-supported Kurdish forces alerted Ankara, which began to realize that its ambiguous attitude on ISIS would eventually harm its own interests.
Starting from 2015, Turkey readjusted its policy on ISIS and tightened control of its border with Syria. It also moved to repair relations with Russia, which had soured because of the shooting-down of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet. The July 15, 2016 aborted military coup alienated Turkey from the Western camp as Ankara believed that NATO’s military base in the country played a part in the coup. Then the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara prompted Turkey to distance itself from the Western camp. This attitude change indicates that Turkey will no longer seek the ouster of Assad and is cooperating with Iran and Russia for a political solution of the Syrian problem.
Given Turkey’s influence on the Syrian political conditions, the impact of its policy change on Syria’s future and on the Western camp is obvious. For Assad, Ankara’s new policy will grant him a relatively stable strategic rear zone along Turkey’s long northern border, which will serve as valuable chips on both the battlefield and negotiation table with the opposition, for neither the opposition nor its behind-the-scene supporter would gain much in the negotiation while threatened by hostile fire from both the front and the rear. Once Syria’s domestic order is restored, international terrorist forces will find their living space in the country greatly shrunk. For the Western camp, Turkey’s act of changing sides will rob it of its best way to interfere in the Syrian affair, for no neighboring countries of Syria can replace the role of Turkey. Nevertheless, the Syrian issue may still be a viable option for Donald Trump if he wants to initiate peace talks with the Russia-led camp, though it is somewhat too late.