By Hasan Selim Ozertem
Since the uprisings of March 2011 in Syria, one and a half years have passed. A solution to the Syrian problem has not yet appeared on the horizon and it remains an important topic on the agenda of international politics as well as of Turkey. While the number of Syrian refugees crossing Turkish borders is increasing, the PKK used this same corridor to launch its attacks on police officers in Pinarbasi, Kayseri province. Together with the Syrian attack on the Turkish jet, the Syrian issue has evolved into one of the main concerns of Turkish domestic politics. Statements such as “Syria is our domestic affair!” have been proved by these recent developments.
Turkey will be exposed to even greater threats if the issue is not resolved smoothly in the near future. According to recent statistics, almost 15,000 people have already been killed and more are going to die in Syria. The numbers of people killed are increasing exponentially and it seems they will continue to until Assad terminates each and every element of the opposition. Parallel to the ongoing massacre in the country, another imminent concern for Turkey is the rising number of Syrians seeking refuge. There are already 40,000 Syrians in the guest camps inside the borders of Turkey. Next to the rising number of Syrian refugees, a main concern for Turkey is a safe haven for the PKK in Syria as an alternative to Kandil in Iraq. The PKK has already begun its activities to organize Kurds in the country and the terrorists have already started to use this corridor for hit and run attacks. In fact, the PKK could take advantage of the ongoing chaos and use Syrian soil to organize another front of opposition in Kandil. If this political deadlock continues, Syria will become one of the central bases for PKK operations and thereby a major threat to Turkey’s security.
All these developments seem to suggest that the Syrian issue might get even more complicated on a global scale. Considering the fact that that al-Qaeda is also gaining ground in the country as the instability continues, the picture gets dimmer. Moreover, Syrian borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq could provide for a safe passage for terrorist groups that have the potential to contribute to further instability in the Middle East. Taking into account the fragile political structure of the region and the existing pipeline and future projects plans in global terms, it is clear that this might have a negative impact on economic and political issues.
Within this framework, it is not easy to reach a solution without the common consensus of the international community. Despite the fact that some good points were proposed in the meeting of the Friends of Syria, the lack of support from Russia, China, and Iran on the topic of Assad’s regime is still an obstacle to an agreement on a genuine solution. This lack of support seriously irritates some countries, especially the U.S. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s warning that Russia and China will pay a price for supporting Assad is one of the recent reactions to this position. However, it is not clear how they will pay this price considering Russia and China are permanent members of the United Nation Security Council, China exhibit better economic performance than the rest of the world and Russia has a dominant position in the energy market. In other words, policies based on solely rhetoric have already shown their limits in the Syrian crisis.
However, the reality is that Russia’s political support for Syria turns the region into an international arena for great powers. In a way, Russia is rebuilding its multipolar world thesis in Syria. According to this thesis, there will be no single dominant power in the 21st Century but instead a multipolar system with great powers.
Obviously, Russia’s stance derives predominantly from its strategic concerns in the region as well as the need to establish a balance on the internal and international level. The sustainability of this position can be questioned, but Russia has the potential to change the current picture in the region. For example, there is an option arising to give Assad the right to asylum in Russia or somewhere else. This could ease the situation and make it easier to overcome the crisis. In this sense, there is a chance to form an interim government without Assad, like it was agreed upon at the Geneva meeting. However, if we look at Sergey Lavrov’s statements, this option has not been welcomed in Moscow yet.
On the other hand, Russia has been recently trying to draw a picture that it is not supporting Assad but the Syrian people. Lavrov’s comments are parallel to this stance. In this sense, the suspension of arms sales to Syria by Russia is a positive development. However, considering the Russian Navy’s maneuvers and Russia’s position in the international arena, the impression that there is an actual change in Russia’s earlier position is not given.
Prime Minister Erdogan will visit Moscow in this atmosphere. It is not difficult to assume that the main agenda will be Syria. After Erdogan’s visit to Beijing, this is a follow-up visit to Moscow. As known, Erdogan shared his views and concerns regarding Syria with the higher echelons of the Communist Party of China during this visit in April 2012. Then he gave the signal that he would visit Moscow as well. In this sense, it seems Erdogan will continue to seek the support of Russia in Syria after China. Moreover, the visit has a symbolic meaning as well. This is Erdogan’s first visit to Russia after Putin’s presidential election. Apart from all that, the visit will be made after the downing of a Turkish aircraft in the eastern Mediterranean close to Syrian border.
To sum up, it is not expected that this visit will bring a critical change to Russia’s stance on in Syria. However, it is critical in the sense that two big countries of the region will evaluate the developments in an exclusive meeting. In fact, these exclusive meetings are one of the main mechanisms of problem solving in the region, since they allow an opportunity to discuss issues openly behind closed doors at a bilateral level. Given the fact that both are important countries in the region that succeeded in deepening their relations in bilateral terms, the visit might prove to be an opportunity to cooperate in dealing with crises in regional terms as well.