Ending the war in Syria
But the ISSG comprises both allies and adversaries, meaning that continued progress will be a challenge. Now, another pair of countries in the process, Turkey and Russia, appear headed down the road to mutual enmity. Turkey, whose proximity to Syria generates both challenges and opportunities, could play an especially significant role in shaping how the peace process plays out. But Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on its border with Syria last month has spurred a swift and sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, with the Kremlin imposing retaliatory economic sanctions.
Russia, for its part, is facing the tough reality of maintaining an active military presence in the Middle East. Its efforts to bolster President Bashar Assad’s regime (and thus to strengthen its own role at the negotiating table) places it at odds with the countries that want Assad out.
The problem for Turkey is that it also aims to ensure that Kurdish groups — such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, which is closely affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — do not consolidate control of territory in Syria, now or during the post-conflict reconstruction.
Since the summer, when several severe outbreaks of violence effectively ended a two-year old cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government, the Kurdish conflict in Turkey has once again been burning white-hot, raising fears about the impact of an empowered PYD. Ongoing domestic political upheaval, including two parliamentary elections in just six months, has complicated Turkey’s situation further.
Turkey’s opposition to empowering the Kurds has been a source of tension with its traditional ally, the United States, which believes the Kurds are the only force on the ground capable of fighting Daesh. The rekindled hostility between Turkey’s government and the PKK is thus undermining Turkey’s interest in the success of the Syrian peace negotiations. Amid these challenges, however, is a ray of hope: Turkey’s relations with the European Union have lately improved markedly. Europe’s desperation to resolve the refugee crisis has strengthened its incentive to cooperate with Turkey. This creates an important opportunity to restart negotiations for Turkish accession to the EU — a prospect that had been nearly extinguished.
To be sure, in its latest report on Turkey’s progress toward meeting the accession criteria, the European Commission noted “significant shortcomings” relating to the judiciary, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and appealed for the resumption of efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue. But now the mood is significantly improved. Already, the EU and Turkey have agreed on a joint-action plan, which entails some visa liberalization, and there has been talk of a possible “privileged” bilateral relationship.
Moreover, there has been some promising forward movement on the Cyprus issue, a longstanding impediment to Turkey’s EU accession. With Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders having resumed talks in May, Turkey now has the opportunity to take decisive steps toward uniting the island.
In short, the refugee crisis has tilted the EU toward Turkey. But defeating Daesh remains a top priority. This will require negotiating with Russia — something that EU members have recognized. Since the Paris attacks in November, efforts to strengthen cooperation against terrorism, including between France and Russia, have intensified. If Turkey wants its relationship with the EU to continue to improve, it will have to engage, too. The tension between Turkey and Russia has also hurt Turkey’s own position in Syria. Beyond the economic sanctions, Russia has now equipped its warplanes with air-to-air missiles, making it more difficult for Turkey to defend its airspace and maintain its influence over the northeastern Syrian border, an area that it considers critical to prevent the PYD from crossing the Euphrates to the West.
Turkey should reflect on its position. It cannot risk being perceived as a country that jeopardizes basic freedoms, thereby widening the gap with the EU. Two factors will sustain its position as an essential ally of the US and the EU: Improved relations with the Kurds and progress toward a settlement in Cyprus. In the Syrian peace process, the decisions Turkey makes can either drive or impede progress toward a settlement.
The myriad factors shaping Turkey’s position make decision-making very difficult. But there is a way out of the current tangle: A strategic approach that makes the most of rapprochement with the EU and recognizes the importance of stabilizing Syria as soon as possible.
Turkey recently demonstrated its ability to overcome complex challenges, wisely restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel after a five-year breach in ties. Given this, reconciliation with Russia cannot be ruled out. Such an approach would, no doubt, facilitate the management of a host of risks that have been exacerbated by the Syrian conflict.
The writer is a former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. ©Project Syndicate
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