Assoc. Prof. Emel Parlar Dal / ISTANBUL
The Astana talks have managed to gather the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime and the three regional actors -- Turkey, Iran and Russia -- around the negotiation table with positive results that will hopefully be lasting with the Syrian Civil War having taken on a new dimension after the battle for Aleppo.
So, at this point, it is important to understand how Turkish foreign policy is likely to be affected, both on a regional and global scale, by the course of the talks, the evolutions they may undergo and their potential consequences.
Given that the Syrian crisis has had adverse effects on the course and achievements of Turkey's Middle East policy, whose ideological and strategic infrastructure began to be rebuilt in the beginning of the 2000s, we can say that Turkey tops the list of countries with the strongest desire to see the end of this civil war.
The Syrian War, since its outbreak in 2011, has indeed been one of the scenes where the throes of change in the post-western/American, or in other words, the "post-hegemonic” international order, can best be observed.
So much so that the ongoing regional state of disarray was internalized by the West after a while, and its negative impacts were viewed as sustainable/tolerable until it targeted the West directly.
The new balances in the Middle East
As of the current point we have arrived at, the creation of a global common sense and a strong resolve to lead the Middle East out of the chaos it is mired in just does not seem possible. The best example of this reality can be traced in the approaches taken by the global actors towards the fight against Daesh and their practices in this regard.
The fate of the Syrian Civil War seems to have been virtually left to Russia, Turkey and Iran in an environment where the major actors of the international coalition scrambled against Daesh are not involved in the fight in a coordinated manner, let alone share a common cause.
It would thus not be wrong to state that the unlocking, as it were, of the Syrian crisis would make these three actors decisive powers in the new order to be established in the Middle East.
This process would also give us clues as to the kind of power-sharing that would occur between the major powers and the middle-range/rising ones, particularly in the Trump era.
Multiple dimensions and actors of likely solution in Syria
So, what does the resolution of the Syrian conundrum mean for Turkey?
No doubt, Turkey's first priority regarding the Middle East is for the Syrian crisis to be resolved as soon as possible through peaceful means and preferably without Assad and under the guarantorship of regional powers through a political solution.
Hence, the following issues are very significant for Turkey:
the continuation of the ceasefire agreed on by the Assad regime and the opposition in the last week of December, ensuring the emergence of a political roadmap that would satisfy the regime and the opposition forces at the same time and ensuring the success of the fight against Daesh through the Operation Euphrates Shield and its continuation on a legitimate ground, and eliminating any sort of danger threatening its national security by confining the PYD-YPG/PKK front to its own region in northern Syria.
Syria in Trump era
Having officially taken over U.S. presidency on Jan. 20, Donald Trump's decision to not send a delegation to the Astana talks demonstrates that he is taking a cautious approach to the settlement process in Syria.
It also shows that he will take a step-by-step approach and will not be rushed, engaging in the process through the participation of his own choice of actors.
It seems that, during this transitional period, President Trump will be acting on a ground that he sees fit, adhering to the policy of "wait and see", and with the actors that he finds appropriate, instead of acting fast in the resolution of such a challenging crisis as Syria.
In his inaugural speech, he underscored that they would be prioritizing the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, which shows that their main focus in Syria will be fighting Daesh, at least as of this early stage.
Although it remains uncertain yet how the international coalition may function from now on and whether it would be willing to act in tandem with Russia toward a likely solution in Syria, we may argue that the U.S. would cautiously approach any peace settlement in Syria brokered with the participation of Iran.
In addition, during this transitional period, we can at least see signs that Trump has no intention to take quick action regarding Syria.
On the other hand, one can observe that Trump's taking quick action to be effectively involved in Syria and the Middle East is what both Ankara and Moscow have long missed and now desire to see in the short term.
Both states' insistence on involving the U.S. in the Astana talks was sending out a strong message that we are now at the end of the road, that there are no alternatives apart from a solution, and that they do not want to take any more chances.
Turkey's "responsible role" in Middle East and beyond
Now we may argue that the next role Turkey will assume in the Middle East is essentially linked with the developments in Syria. As will be recalled, when the Arab Spring first began, there was a widespread belief held both in the Middle East and by the international community that Turkey would assume a constructive role in this new process of "change".
We need to underscore that the discussions on the "Turkish model," which had been "put into circulation" by the Western media in particular after Sept. 11 only to be shelved in the later stages of the process, were taken off its dusty shelves and fervently advertised by the international community during the first two years of the Arab Spring.
Likewise, we need to remind that Ankara is taking a cautious approach to the "model" role conception being crafted for it in this new process and is more inclined to adopt the role of "an inspiring actor" as opposed to merely advocating a Turkish model.
Either way, it is possible to note that the discussions on the Turkish model have significantly contributed to the positive perception of Turkey in its foreign policy and domestic affairs as well.
Having said that, considering the international community's tendency to design roles for Turkey one after another at every critical juncture its region passes through, we can say that the expectations on Turkey will increase in Syria in the aftermath of Aleppo and in the larger Middle East during Trump's presidency.
In this new era, Turkey's performance of its duty as a responsible actor in the most effective manner and virtually playing an "agenda-setting" role would help Turkish foreign policy gain greater strength both in the region and at a global level.
It would not be wrong to point out that a pragmatic foreign policy that is able to create alternatives, open to change and endowed with a high capacity to adapt to regional and global developments would expand Turkey's domain of influence and particularly help prepare the ground for a more effective fight against international terrorism.
We also need to emphasize that Turkey's new role as a responsible actor would have global effects, which are at least as positive as the regional ones.
Might Astana talks be a turning point for the fate of the Syrian Crisis?
Turkey, Russia, Iran and all other parties involved in Astana talks seem to have been satisfied, at least in grand lines, by the immediate results sorted out from this platform: a joint initiative aimed at, in the first place, consolidating a more durable ceasefire in Syria.
The most important difference of the Astana talks from the ongoing Geneva process is that the military opposition groups will, from now on, be also engaged in the peace talks and that the representatives of the different factions in Syria that fought each other for six years -- the Assad regime and the political and military opposition groups -- have been united around a single table, however briefly it may be.
On the other hand, we may possibly regard the Astana platform as a critical milestone at this stage of the crisis in terms of being a parallel and functional initiative that may provide a solid ground and framework for the UN-backed Geneva talks -- a still working mechanism -- and in terms of saving the Syrian peace process from the monopoly of the U.S. and the UN.
As pointed out in the final declaration, the fact that there will be a door left open to re-functionalize the Astana platform in the period ahead in the event of a need is important in that it shows that the trilateral mechanism of Turkey-Russia-Iran will be the constructive element of a likely peace that will be established in Syria.
Similarly, the fact that the Astana talks have been positioned as an additional structure that will assist and complement the Geneva talks in February also shows that this initiative does not intend to undermine the legitimate ground of the ongoing UN peace talks.
The Astana talks, as stated above, can also be seen as the first major institutional step to lay down legitimate foundations for the trilateral Turkish-Russian-Iranian mechanism.
These talks also demonstrate that peace-building in an environment riddled with uncertainties, which are as numerous as the expectations, is a long and arduous process with multiple stages.
It is obvious that the mechanism created by these three states will be governing the Syrian peace in a realistic manner "from behind the curtain" with the support of the U.S. and other major states, albeit not under their leadership.
We can also regard Astana as a major juncture since it has debunked a very problematic understanding that prevailed in the post-Aleppo period in the international community and particularly the U.S.; an understanding that tends to reduce the Syrian crisis to a fight against radical jihadist Islamic terrorism, or in other words, a fight against Daesh.
As a result, while underlining Turkey's potential for helping to resolve crises on a global scale, Astana shows that peace in Syria will be possible only after traveling a long and narrow road where multiple balances and changing interests have to be taken into consideration.
Turkey and fluctuations in the changing liberal international order
In the event peace is restored in Syria, Turkey's capacity for crisis management will be put to test at both regional and global levels.
And, as a next step, if Turkey's power and potential for resolving conflicts -- as a country that has endeavored to bring to an end the Syrian Civil War which is one of the greatest tragedies of human history in terms of its consequences -- are legitimized and welcomed by the international community, Turkey would likely gain the position of an effective and functional actor particularly in the field of international security governance.
Turkey could then create for itself new spheres of "niche diplomacy" (diplomacy of expertise) in addition to the developmental aid and humanitarian diplomacy and assistance that it has been dishing out.
Yet it remains to be seen how all this will be reflected on issues of harmonious cooperation and other challenges that will likely occur in the international order during Trump's term.
Despite having its efforts to establish a new regional order being partly hampered in Syria, Turkey, in this new era, will become more resistant to any kind of fluctuation in the international system depending on a harmonious relationship with the U.S. in particular and on its relationship with Russia, which has gained momentum after the normalization of ties.
It would not be wrong to predict that the post-Astana and Trump-era Syrian peace process will see Turkey endeavor to come to terms with Russia and the U.S. and strengthen its basis to act together for a partnership in the solution of this crisis.
These two actors acting on a ground of reconciliation regarding the Syrian crisis may help bring about an environment favorable to Turkey's interests as well.
In the liberal international order which we estimate will be governed with a different understanding in the Trump era compared to Obama's term, it is a must for middle-range actors, such as Turkey, to manage to put the Syrian crisis to an end if they want to gain an advantage.
And, indeed, such an end does not seem like a distant prospect in view of what has been achieved so far.
Translated by Omer Colakoglu
Emel Parlar Dal is associate professor at Marmara University’s Department of International Relations. After graduating from Galatasaray University, she received her MA and PhD degrees at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Paris 3 Nouvelle Sorbonne Universities in France.
During 2010-2011 she received the Swiss government’s scholarship and conducted research as a visiting fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
In 2013, she conducted research as an academic visitor at St. Anthony’s College Middle East Center of Oxford University. She has authored articles and edited/co-edited special issues of a number of journals on Turkish foreign policy, Turkey and the Mediterranean region, Turkey’s Middle Eastern relations, transatlantic relations, as well as Turkish-Iranian relations.
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