Just as expected, the Geneva talks on a new Syrian constitution collapsed in late January. Since then, hopes for a breakthrough in the Syrian crisis have receded into the far distance.
As the tragedy enters its 12th year, however, foreign stakeholders appear to be shifting their positions. They have evidently wearied of that protracted crisis, which would never have grown so complex, intractable and tragic had it not been for their interference to begin with.
Last week, Turkey and Qatar joined Russia in launching what Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described as a “new trilateral consultation process... to contribute to efforts to reach a lasting political solution” to the conflict in war-torn Syria.
Naturally this latest bid to break through the political impasse stirred considerable speculation here in Ankara. At least for the moment, no answers were forthcoming from the presidential palace or its media apparatus, which remained unusually tight-lipped on the events in Doha on 10 March. One had to turn to the opposition press and some NGOs for insights into what motivated that “meeting of antitheses” and why in Qatar and why now.
In those circles, the general belief was that with the current pandemic (and plummeting foreign currency reserves in the case of Turkey) Syria had become too costly a burden to all the three countries (as well as Iran, which is ever present in the background). In any case Ankara appears to have suddenly overcome its Bashar Al-Assad obsession and no longer cares whether he stays or goes.
So, apart from some grumbling for the sake of form, perhaps, it will voice no objections to Syria’s return to the Arab League which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov believes will have a positive effect on conditions in the Middle East. Qatar was calculatedly vague on this point. It said there were reasons the Syrian seat in the Arab League was still vacant but that ultimately “this is something for the Syrians to decide.”
According to informed sources, such statements reflect a marked shift in the positions of the tiny emirate, one encouraged by Lavrov who said, “I can only welcome Qatar’s desire to make its contribution to creating the conditions for overcoming the current tragic situation in Syria.”
Still, to avoid the appearance of a sharp U-turn on the part of the Qatari authorities, the Qatar-based AlJazeera TV hosted former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab who reiterated the prediction he made years ago after he defected from the Al-Assad regime: “The phase of change is inevitable and close at hand, and Al-Assad will not be in it.” That Doha served as the venue for this tripartite meeting is ironic. Exactly a decade ago, the Qatari capital cheered the Daraa uprising, hailing it as a “revolution” while omitting all mention of the fact that it was consummately Salafi in identity.
For opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, the policy reversals embodied in the Doha meeting were an occasion to critique Erdogan, whom they reminded of how he had leagued with the Qataris to back the extremists in the Syrian uprising, imagining it was possible to engineer the overthrow of Al-Assad in a matter of weeks or months.
Now, ten years later, they have finally acknowledged their failure. Moreover, Doha’s guest, Lavrov, could boast that his country had saved Al-Assad from their scheme and helped him repel Turkish and Qatari backed jihadists. In other words, the Russian victor had come to Doha to steer the losers away from their proxies.
Erdogan’s critics also reminded him of how, on 2 February 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood (whose leaders and media organs are hosted and sponsored by Turkey) seized the opportunity of the 29th anniversary of the Hama Massacre to proclaim a “Day of Rage” in Syria, only to end up in an alliance with Abdel-Halim Khaddam, the leader of the Syrian National Liberation Front and notorious “Butcher of Hama”.
Erdogan had other things to worry about: reports of a Russian-US initiative appear to have paved the way for a constructive process in neighbouring Syria, one that might marginalise him. Erdogan may simply withdraw from occupied Syrian territory, leaving behind the 70,000-strong “Syrian National Army” he had put together around a main body of 40,000 fighters from the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. Worse yet was the spectre of Washington and Tehran reaching an understanding over the Iranian nuclear question in which case Iran might be in a position to strengthen its role in Syria with Western blessing.
But how, exactly, might Erdogan throw a spanner into a process that has begun to take shape with backing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE? He had been isolated on all sides when Abu Dhabi and Riyadh began to advance, at his expense, into the territory of the hotspots he had helped create in order to expand his influence. Abu Dhabi has reportedly given Al-Assad generous support in his war against the Turkish-backed militias in Idlib, pledging to foot the bill for the reconstruction of the areas liberated by the Syrian army. The UAE has also worked together with Saudi Arabia to reshape the Syrian opposition, bringing to the fore Syrian opposition figures who had been living in these countries for years and might be more acceptable to Damascus.
Meanwhile, Ankara has been coming under attack from the US and Europe for its interventions and aggressive behaviour in all directions, including Syria. The EU Parliament’s resolution of 11 March 2021 on the Syrian conflict was unprecedented in the breadth and tone of its censure. It stated that “Turkey has been intervening directly in Syria since 2016 with a view to occupying the northern parts of the country, predominantly consisting of Syrian Kurdish enclaves, in violation of international law” and called on Turkey “to withdraw its troops from northern Syria which it is illegally occupying outside of any UN mandate”.
It also condemned “Turkey’s illegal transfers of Kurdish Syrians from occupied northern Syria to Turkey for detention and prosecution in violation of Turkey’s international obligations under the Geneva Conventions” and urged that “all Syrian detainees who have been transferred to Turkey be immediately repatriated to the occupied territories in Syria”.
The statement expressed concern that Turkey might be practising ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds, condemning its use of “Syrian mercenaries in conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, in violation of international law”, and stressed that “Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation has jeopardised peace in Syria, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly