Turkey, Russia See A Place For US In Syria Peace Talks

Photo: Reuters

Turkey and Russia are preparing to invite the U.S. to peace talks in Astana next week, in a significant turnaround from their earlier stance to keep Washington out of the latest diplomatic effort aimed at finding a tangible solution to the protracted war in Syria.

“The United States should be definitely invited, and that is what we agreed with Russia,” AFP quoted the Turkish minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying after he talked to reporters following an international conference on Cyprus in Geneva.

Having the U.S. back in the equation reflects a desire both in Russia and Turkey to open a fresh chapter with the incoming U.S. administration as President-elect Donald Trump displayed an eagerness to work with Russia to resolve the Syrian conflict. Add to that, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a confirmation hearing that the U.S. should also engage with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

It has generated a new wave of enthusiasm for the Turkish leadership in Ankara, which had grown leery and uneasy of even tepid American criticism over topics of human rights and democracy after a failed coup last summer. Turkey’s relations with the U.S. palpably deteriorated also over their divergent views on how to cultivate relations with the Syrian Kurdish militia.

Both Turkey and Russia harbor expectations from the new White House that appears to be indifferent to moral issues when it comes to cooperation in international politics, a key point that had caused discord and tension with several countries, like Russia and Turkey, during the Barack Obama administration.

Last month, Turkey, Russia and Iran came up with a declaration in Moscow that lays groundwork for a workable scheme for a political accord in Syria, an initiative that excluded the U.S. or any other Western power. Though the U.S. initially said it welcomes any attempt that would bring a solution to the Syrian war regardless of the U.S. involvement, it prompted soul-searching in Washington over its exclusion from the process.

“When the Turks, the Iranians and the Russians all agree on a process without the U.S. being in the room, you realize there is a problem for us,” Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times after the declaration in late December.

A Russia-Turkey brokered truce followed the Moscow declaration, partially halted fight across Syria. Later the nation-wide ceasefire between the government and rebel forces showed signs of crumbling in the face of regime operations in Damascus suburbs and southern Syria.

“We will invite the U.S. to Astana. The U.S. will be in Astana, we don’t deny the role and contribution of the U.S.,” Mr. Cavusoglu said at the 9th Ambassadors’ Conference in Ankara. His remarks came a day after U.S. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby said his country had not been invited to the talks.

But the rift with the U.S. over the role of Syrian Kurdish militias that make up the bulk of U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of fighter groups, is bound to prolong. Turkey’s unflinching opposition to the group creates a quandary for the U.S., which found itself navigating a fine line between its NATO ally and its most potent partner against Islamic State in Syria, mostly to no avail.

The U.S. insists on the participation of Syrian Kurds in Astana talks. That drew a sharp rebuke from Ankara, who regards the Syrian Kurdish militia as a national security threat, and a terrorist organization over its affiliation with its domestic insurgent group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Mr. Cavusoglu offered a sharp condemnation of the U.S. demand, saying that “the U.S. should invite Daesh, too.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

The incongruence of two sides’ approach to the Syrian Kurdish fighters exposes pitfalls and perils in Washington’s Syria policy, forcing Mr. Tillerson to tread a fragile balancing act. He told U.S. lawmakers that the U.S. should step up its support for the Syrian Kurds to crush ISIS in Syria, while also engage with Turkey over regional issues, most notably Syria. How both policies could be executed with the same efficiency remains to be seen.

Turkey’s shift to Russia in recent months is the harbinger of a new geopolitical realignment in the region. Russia now provides air support for the Turkish forces struggling to capture al-Bab from beleaguered ISIS fighters.

Last week, the Turkish foreign minister broached the subject of Incirlik Air Base, and threatened to shut down the air base to U.S. jets, reflecting the ever-growing rift between the two allies. Though Mr. Trump’s election to White House created a jubilant mood in Ankara, a fresh start in bilateral ties depends on how far the U.S. could meet wide-ranging Turkish demands.

Turkey urges its ally to cut all kind of support to Syrian Kurds, while incoming administration signals a much deeper engagement and cooperation with the Kurdish militia for a decisive victory against ISIS in Syria. It runs counter to what Turkey expects from Trump-led White House.

Extradition of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen constitutes another source of friction. Whether Trump will take a political decision to satisfy Ankara by extraditing Mr. Gulen remains to be known in coming months. Erdogan accused the cleric of masterminding the July 15 failed coup attempt. Gulen denies the allegations.

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