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Dec 06 2018

Closer U.S.-Turkish ties could move Assad to negotiating table - experts

If Turkey and the United States closely coordinate their policies in Syria despite their differences, they could accelerate bringing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table, said several experts on Thursday for a survey conducted by the Carnegie Middle East Center. 

The survey indicated a consensus among experts that it would be virtually impossible to remove Assad from power, given the support he has received from Russia and Iran. But, closer ties between the United States and Turkey, which have had opposing objectives in northern Syria over the civil war, could still produce results.

“Having said that, closer U.S.-Turkish cooperation can definitely push Assad to take negotiations seriously and bring him to the table to kickstart a credible political process,” said Assaad al-Achi, a Syrian economist and director of Baytna Syria, a civil society support organisation. “The outcome of such negotiations remains to be seen.”

Dorothée Schmid, a researcher on Turkey, said that it is “doubtful” Turkey would wage a war against Assad. Ankara and Washington can work to contain Iranian influence, she said, if the two allies can mend strained relations due to Turkey’s opposition to the United States supporting Kurdish rebel groups in northern Syria, which Turkey brands as terrorists. 

“Washington stands firmly with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to help it fight the Islamic State group, while the Kurds’ rise in Syria remains Turkey’s chief preoccupation and motive for military intervention beyond its border,” wrote Schmid, a senior senior fellow and the head of the Turkey Program at the French Institute of International Relations. 

Turkey views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an armed rebellion in Turkey for decades. 

“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just dismissed the Islamic State in Syria as a ragtag organisation, and he has recommitted himself to ridding the areas under the U.S. control from the PYD-YPG,” said Soli Özel, a professor at Kadir Has University and a columnist at Habertürk news site.

Özel and al-Achi said that it was unlikely for Turkey to take a hard line against Russia, as Ankara was set to acquire the Russian S-400 missile defence systems, a move which also had soured tensions between Turkey and the United States. 

In addition, if a U.S.-Turkish alliance were to occur, Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said, it would further “entrench Moscow in its alliance with the Assad regime.” He agrees with other experts that Turkey is not necessarily focused on Assad anymore. 

“Ankara is not focused on removing Bashar al-Assad today, but on further connecting to mainland Turkey the Syrian areas it took during its Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch military operations—culturally, politically, and economically,” Ali said. “This is a takeover similar to what happened in northern Cyprus … Turkey’s primary motivation is its long-term investment in a Turkified Syria.”