Is Peace in Syria Finally Within Reach?

Fighting between Kurdish gunmen and Jabhat al-Nusra Front in the town of Ras al-Ayn. Wikimedia Commons/Younes Mohammad

The proposed U.S.-Russian bargain could be our last chance.

The recent ISIS-inspired and/or contrived terror attacks in Istanbul, Baghdad, Al Qaa (Lebanon), Mecca and Dhaka graphically reflect both the bestiality and the long reach of the Salafi-jihadi organization. To many observers, ISIS, despite losing ground in Iraq and Syria, has been expanding its power across continents. True, ISIS has been diligent in expanding and projecting its terror network beyond its self-proclaimed border in the Levant; nevertheless, ISIS is facing a newly configurational development in Syria that could bring an end to its capital in Raqqa. Significantly, this new configuration has opened the horizon for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis.

Overshadowed by the terror attack on Istanbul’s international airport in late June 2016, which left forty-four people dead and dozens injured, Turkey’s policy realignment by mending ties with Russia and Israel underscored the failure of Ankara’s Syria policy. Days before the terror attack, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter of condolence to Russian president Vladimir Putin, in which Erdoğan formally apologized for the death of a Russian pilot whose aircraft was shot down near the Syrian border last November by Turkey. Erdoğan also offered to pay compensation to the pilot’s family.

Putin responded by moving to lift sanctions on Turkey and calling Erdoğan to convey his condolences for Istanbul’s suicide bombing. Soon thereafter, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi. The two officials affirmed the readiness of the two countries to normalize their relations and to restart a working group on fighting terrorism. Significantly, Lavrov emphasized that Moscow would be discussing difficult issues with Ankara, including the task of preventing the terrorist infiltration into Syria from abroad, the task of preventing the use of Turkish territory in support of terrorist organizations in Syria.”

This clear Turkish political volte-face was justified by Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who stated on July 3 that “Russia is our eternal neighbor therefore the temporary deterioration in our relations is not something any of us wanted.” He added: “Our priority target is to remain friends with all the countries neighboring the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea; to use the opportunities with them instead of having crises.” Acknowledging that its foreign-policy objectives have been unsettled particularly as a result of its involvement in the Syrian civil war, Turkey is apparently reviving its “Strategic Depth Doctrine,” as devised by the country’s former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. His doctrine aspired to transform Turkey from a central power into a global power, based on its unique geostrategic position and Ottoman legacy, while at the same time enhancing its stature by engaging regional countries so as to achieve “zero problems” with them.

On closer examination, however, Turkey’s political about-face is more the product of its recognition that its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, together with its ramifications for Ankara, has brought the county to the precipice of potential disintegration. Coming in the wake of successive terror acts committed by ISIS, the recent Istanbul suicide bombing is only a testament that Turkey’s policy of turning a blind eye to jihadi infiltration into Syria to fight the Assad regime had left behind a wide network of Salafi-jihadists, including Turks. The moment Turkey realized its strategic mistake and aligned itself with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS by first opening Incirlik Air Base in September 2015 to American aircraft, Ankara has become the target of ISIS. It’s an open secret that during Turkey’s laissez-faire policy from 2011 to mid-2015, Salafi-jihadists established deep terror cells in the country, especially in Adıyaman, Antakya, Istanbul and Kilis, which also served as logistical conduits for foreign jihadi fighters making their way into Syria. The terrorists behind the Istanbul airport suicide bombing were foreign Syrian jihadi fighters from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Similarly, as shown in Russian-Turkish discussions, Turkey has apparently recognized the fact that all Salafi-jihadi organizations, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are terrorist organizations that can no longer be supported directly or indirectly to remove the Assad regime.

No less significant, Turkey, which played a key role in supporting the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, has found itself at cross-purposes with the anti-Assad camp. By emerging as key players against both the Assad regime and ISIS, the Kurds of northern Syria have situated themselves at the center of American efforts to create a reliable pro-Western and effective anti-ISIS force. But the Kurdish forces of Rojava, the Kurdish name for the area in northern Syria currently controlled by the Kurdish forces, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are considered as a terrorist group by Turkey for their alliance with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States and Turkey have designated as a terrorist organization. Consequently, Turkey has been furious with American support of the YPG.