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Will Assad and Erdogan swallow their pride and make a deal?

The restoration of dialogue of any kind between two bitter enemies would be a remarkable turnaround

A new post-war Syria may be about to come into being in the wake of the defeat of Islamic State (IS).

The Syrian war has had the unintended effect of internationalising Turkey’s battle against the PKK

On Wednesday Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, joined Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, and the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, in a summit intended to map the way forward and as President Erdoğan put it find "a permanent and acceptable solution for the people of Syria."

The Sochi prescription

For a country ravaged by years of internecine warfare, the Sochi prescription sounds deceptively easy. A Syrian National Dialogue Conference is, Erdogan said, to be held in Sochi in early December with all moderate parties represented, followed by "free and fair elections".

Turkey's main contribution presumably would be to bring moderate Sunni opposition groups to the table. If all that is uncertain, the task of piloting a way out of the blind alley in which Turkey’s Syrian policy seems to be trapped is even more so.

After the violence in Syria broke out in early 2011, Erdogan's previously good relations with Bashar al-Assad soured and he backed regime change forces and opposition groups. That dream has now receded and Turkey's goals in Syria have altered drastically.

The Syrian war has had the unintended effect of internationalising Turkey's battle against the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party). Turkey is waging a war against the movement which it designates as terrorist in its southeastern provinces.

So the overriding imperative for Ankara now in Syria is to end the growing autonomy of the Syrian Kurdish enclaves along its borders run by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), an offshoot of the PKK.

Though Erdogan insisted that the PYD would have to be barred from participating in the forthcoming Sochi conference, for the first time he did not say the same about Assad and the Syrian government.

Syrian Democratic Forces commanders attend a news conference in Ain Issa announcing a new operation (Reuters)

Dialogue with Assad?

Assad was not at the Wednesday Sochi summit, evidently because of continuing Turkish hostility to him, but he was very much in the picture, having been in Sochi meeting his ally President Putin two days earlier for separate talks and given a very warm welcome.

So could Turkish dialogue with Assad be re-established? Erdogan tantalised the Turkish media by saying though there had been no such meeting as yet, "the doors in politics are always open right up to the final moment".

The restoration of dialogue of any kind between two bitter enemies would be a remarkable turnaround. However some Turkish commentators close to the Turkey's ruling party (AKP) are now saying that Assad is no longer Turkey's chief adversary in Syria.

In their view the enemies are the Kurds and the US which they take to be behind the Kurds.

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Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-AKP Yeni Safak, wrote this week: "Turkey should not be obsessed with Assad or the regime, it should have an attitude toward all attempts targeting Syria’s division. Greater threats are targeting the region and Turkey."

Here the attitudes of the other two countries attending the Sochi summit, Iran and Russia, are critical. Both share Turkey's desire to see the American role in Syria reduced or better still eliminated, but for them the problem of the Syrian Kurdish enclaves is much less serious, and through contacts with the enclaves, Russia has in effect so far acted as a brake on Turkish attempts to isolate Syrian Kurds.

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Kurdish cantons

All three governments pay lip service to the idea of preserving Syria's territorial integrity, something which implies restoring the Kurdish "cantons" to government from Damascus. The question is how that can happen.

One route might perhaps be under a deal between the Syrian government and the PYD, perhaps underwritten by a parallel Russian-American agreement, something that both Kurds and Turks would dislike.

It seems that airstrips in Kurdish-held Syria, notably at Rmeilan, may be gradually replacing Incirlik airbase in Turkey for US regional strategy

The alternative, conceivably, would be a further round of hostilities. President Erdogan talks of an assault to clear the western Kurdish enclave of Afrin and repeatedly warns in the words of a song that "we may turn up suddenly one night", but that option does not seem on the cards at the moment.

The Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG (Peoples Protection Units), has a very good fighting record, is well armed, and has dug in to defend itself. Fighting it without air support would be a very risky endeavour. Furthermore the enclaves are protected by their close proximity to United States military units in Syria (Turkey claims that these are stationed at 13 points) and air power.

A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij on 5 March 2017 (AFP)

US in Syria indefinitely

Though the war against IS - the reason why there are US forces in Syria - is drawing to a close, the US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said two weeks ago that the US will remain in Syria indefinitely, for "as long as they want to".

It seems that airstrips in Kurdish-held Syria, notably at Rmeilan, may be gradually replacing Incirlik airbase in Turkey for US regional strategy.

Moreover a bond of intense friendship seems to exist between the YPG and the US forces, making Turkey deeply suspicious of the US's motives in Syria. On Friday the US President Donald Trump attempted to allay these fears in a telephone conversation with the Turkish president by pledging that the US will not give any more arms to the YPG.

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But this only echoed similar earlier assurances by the US to Turkey, which Ankara does not believe. Turkey wants the US to repudiate its alliance with the Syrian Kurds in full. Given this background of ever deepening Turkish distrust of the US, it is easy to see why Turkey drew closer to Russia and Iran at Sochi.  

But there is still no sign that the Turks realistically expect Iran or Russia to assist them in suppressing the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. The person who does possess both the necessary means and the motivation for doing so remains Bashar al-Assad.

Assad has both an air force and a clear legal basis for flying anywhere in Syria or permitting others to do so, and is inside the joint Russian-Syrian air defence system

But it seems unlikely that Assad and Erdogan will be able to swallow their pride and make a deal. Nor is it clear that either the US or Russia would be very averse to seeing a new Kurdish player gradually emerging in the troubled politics of the Middle East.

David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in friendlier times (AFP) 

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