The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did another about-face following the failed coup against him. He has since re-defined Turkey's role in Syria with a nationalist-authoritarian priority, while reneging on some previous accords with the Gulf countries and the US-led coalition in Syria. Erdogan has placed the containment of Kurdish expansion at the top of his list of priorities, complete with an understanding with Iran on disallowing the further evolution if not the full suppression if necessary of Kurdish nationalism. He joined the campaign against ISIS and similar groups through the Russian gateway, yet without closing the door to the American component of the campaign, thus making himself indispensable for both sides. He has forfeited his previous priorities, which had put him in the same camp as the Gulf States; thus, the fate of Bashar al-Assad is no longer the key determinant of Turkey's Syria policy, which is now more willing to accept him remaining in power for an undetermined period during a transitional period following the failed coup. This is part of what has alarmed the Gulf leaders, who invested too much in the effort to push Assad to step down. More importantly, the Gulf is alarmed because Erdogan's new policy has been interpreted as fighting both ISIS and the Kurds on behalf of the regime in Damascus. Therefore, Gulf sources believe Erdogan has joined an axis that comprises Iran, Russia, and a new Syria where Assad is allowed to remain in power "provisionally", and admit that the Gulf States are powerless if Erdogan decides the supply route to the Syrian rebels must be closed. The only hope the Gulf States have now is for Washington to oppose Erdogan's policy dictated by the post-coup reality, especially as the Kurds are a key ally of the United States and the Gulf countries in the war on ISIS, as well as being a bulwark against Iranian-Russian-Syrian regime projects.
However, Washington appears weak before the Turkish "offensive," which went through St. Petersburg, Tehran, and Damascus before reaching Jarabulus with U.S. partnership against ISIS, but also against Kurdish positions in Syria to the benefit of both Ankara and the regime in Damascus. The priority for Barack Obama and the next U.S. administration remains the elimination of ISIS with any allies who can help fulfill this goal. If the price is to sell out the Kurdish partner in return for guaranteeing the partnership with Turkey, it will not be new or surprising for the U.S. administration to do so if the national interest dictates it. This phase is the phase of negotiations to determine the features of the configuration of the new security order in the Middle East, rather than the solutions urgently needed for the conflicts of Syria, Yemen, or Libya. The visit by the U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Turkey, and the meetings held by the U.S. and UK foreign secretaries with the Saudi leadership in Jeddah on Yemen, attended by the Russian Middle East envoy, all shed light on the interlinkage between the Syrian and Yemeni issues and the regional dimension of the international alignment. But while the bargaining has begun in earnest, we are still in the beginning of the road.
The fatigue in the Syrian and Yemeni wars could lead to accords based on mutual concessions rather than clinging on to the idea of victory by either side. The no-winner no-loser equation is imposing itself on the conflicts in the Middle East, with the exception of the war on ISIS and similar groups. This is the point of convergence among the players from Raqqa to Mosul, but no final agreements have been reached yet among the players.
The Obama administration is preparing a new landscape for the next administration, believing it to likely be a Democratic one under Clinton based on developments in the U.S. presidentials pitting Hillary Clinton against Republican nominee Donald Trump. What Washington wants first and foremost is to besiege ISIS and eliminate it through the most suitable front to achieve this, namely, Turkey today.
This is where the U.S. and Russian priorities intersect, and these in turn converge with the goals of the permanent Russian-Iranian pro-Damascus alliance and the goals of transient alliances such as those involving the Kurds and their role in fulfilling US and Iran's agendas in Iraq and Syria. Turkey, which at some point was a friend of Bashar al-Assad, then became a supporter of the enemies of Assad, including - allegedly - groups like ISIS. Turkey was also a friend of Israel, before relations soured. Now, Erdogan has swapped his alliances and friendships: he forged a strategic reconciliation with Israel and a tactical one with Assad, and resolved to fight ISIS, its newfound enemy.
Erdogan's Turkey, which was an ally of the West and the Gulf, is today an ally of whoever provides support for Erdogan's authoritarian hold on Turkey, such as Russia. The Turkish president has many bargaining chips. He controls vital supply routes to rebels in Syria, and controls the corridors refugees use to cross into Europe. He has the anti-dote to ISIS and he controls the fate of various Syrian factions.
Thus, Erdogan decided to play all this cards with Russia, the US, Iran, and the Gulf States. The man is now captivated by the euphoria of his triumphalism, and is intent to sacrifice everything that stands in his way to absolute power in Turkey.
Joe Biden was extremely apologetic when he visited Ankara this week, and even admitted he was there belatedly. He also opened the legal door to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the popular US-based preacher whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup attempt against his government.
Biden, echoing Erdogan, called on Kurds not to cross into the west of the Euphrates, and turned a blind eye to the Turkish president's new bid to pre-empt any Kurdish plans for a federal entity, as a priority that supersedes the fate of Bashar al-Assad. The US vice president appeared deferential to the assertive Turkish president, as he dictated military conditions, forcing the US at least temporarily to abandon the Kurdish priority in the partnership against ISIS.
Concerning the fate of Bashar al-Assad in a transitional period, Erdogan and Biden implicitly agreed the Gulf obstacle to Assad remaining in power can be resolved by invoking a "provisional" period during which Assad can remain during transition, by not defining the time frame for this. But by doing so, both the US and Turkey would have reversed previous pledges and red lines. However, there are important implications for the results of the investigation by a UN-OPCW panel, which said the Syrian army carried out two chemical weapons attacks using helicopters on villages in Idlib in 2014 and 2015, and also accused ISIS of carrying out a mustard gas attack on the town of Marea in August 2015.
Indeed, this is the first time in the history of the Syrian crisis that blame has been assigned to the Syrian government for deploying chemical weapons - bearing in mind that the famous agreement between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons arsenal was the pretext for Obama to backtrack from his infamous redline of intervening in Syria if Assad uses those weapons.
The UN Security Council received the 95-page report on Wednesday, prompting Western powers to launch preparations to draft a Chapter VII-supported resolution to punish Damascus, either with sanctions or by referring the regime to the ICC. Perhaps Russia will oppose any move in this direction. However, it may use the pressures on the regime in such a crucial matter to engage in bargaining on the future of Syria and Assad's role in it. To be sure, the chemical weapons charges are very important, and any precedent set if ignored would have far-reaching consequences. Therefore, it is possible this could shape the accords over the "provisional" role of Assad in the transition in Syria once agreed.
Clearly, Iran's firm non-compromise on Assad remaining in power is different from Turkey's consent to a temporary role for Assad in the transitional authority. What is as of yet unknown is how the chemical weapons report will influence the Russian position, which could defy any punitive measures against Assad, if it did not bargain.
The same question could be directed to the Western powers, led by the US administration, whose reputation is now linked to the enablement of bloodletting and abuses in Syria. The chemical weapons issue will be the benchmark by which Obama's legacy and reputation will be measured, especially as his name is linked to the betrayal of his own red lines. Now, he is faced with conclusive evidence of the Syrian army's use of these weapons as well as of Assad's failure to dismantle his arsenal in violation of international commitments. ISIS will be definitely punished. There is a new international drive against it in Syria and Iraq, determined to defeat it before the end of the year.
The Syrian rebels, who belong to various factions and loyalties, are facing several military and political tests as a result of the new fickle alliances. Today, the Free Syrian Army feels alive and well with Turkish support, carrying out a dual mission as declared by Erdogan, to purge the border region from both ISIS and the Kurds. However, the question here is: Does the FSA and other rebel groups backed by Ankara have no choice but to do its bidding and agree its "provisional" equation to allow Assad to remain in power? Or have they received secret promises from Turkey? Not long ago, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had US blessing, not least because the Arab-Kurdish partnership in its ranks made it ideal to defeat to ISIS and similar groups. There were reports the SDF were being primed to replace the Saudi-sponsored Higher Negotiations Committee representing the Syrian opposition. But this has now completely changed, thanks to a Turkish decision and Erdogan's determination to shuffle the cards in Syria in his favor. Indeed, the Kurdish advances along the borders with Turkey raised the alarm bells in Ankara and Tehran, which both oppose expanded Kurdish nationalism and statehood. Erdogan thus moved militarily in Syria with US-Iranian-Russian blessing: the US welcomes the entry of Turkey as a key military player in the war on ISIS in Syria, even if the price is to abort the nationalist dreams of the Kurdish partner. Iran, like Turkey, wants to crush Kurdish nationalist aspirations. And Russia wants Turkey to close its borders to radical groups and join the war on ISIS, to address Russia's concerns.
The Gulf concerns, meanwhile, have been exacerbated by the new thinking that followed the failed coup attempt in Turkey. Erdogan's about-face on the regime in Damascus worries the Gulf capitals, and puts previous Turkish-Gulf accords into question. Furthermore, Erdogan's convergence if not coordination with Iranian priorities on account of their mutual Kurdish concerns worries the Gulf.
The Turkish about-face in Syria could be indicative of the start of accord on the future of the new security regime. Perhaps what John Kerry and Boris Johnson carried to Jeddah was a new approach to the conflict in Yemen, and seeds for regional and international breakthroughs in both Yemen and Syria.
It is early to be optimistic about decisions to stop the bloodletting in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya eventually. What is clear in these conflicts is that they are immune to clear military decisions, be it victory or defeat. No one will be a winner in the devastating wars ravaging the Arab nations with appalling regional and international complicity. Translated by Karim Traboulsi