Commentary, Politics

France’s ambition in Syria is a limited strategy, small victory

Turkish-Russian relations, which survived Turkey's downing of a Russian jet and the assassination of Moscow's ambassador to Ankara, are resilient enough to overcome last week's airstrikes. After all, it is based on mutual interests rather than ideological polarization.
3 min read

The airstrikes launched by the United States, Britain and France on regime positions in Syria provided all with a sense of victory. U.S. President Donald Trump celebrated his victory by announcing on Twitter that the mission had been accomplished. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, in turn, ordered his supporters to take to the streets of Damascus and celebrate his victory. Russia and Iran stopped just short of welcoming the limited and pre-announced airstrikes and Turkey voiced support for the operation.

Competing interpretations of what exactly the airstrikes meant were no less interesting. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the operation was a clear message to the Assad regime and its supporters of Russia and Iran. U.S. and British media, in contrast, complained that such limited attacks would not stop the Syrian regime.

Now there is talk of the Trump administration preparing to impose additional sanctions on Russia for its alleged complicity in the Douma chemical attack. At the same time, policymakers are unsure whether the U.S. can contain Russia and Iran without developing a comprehensive Syria policy first.

The most interesting statement, however, came from French President Emmanuel Macron, who reportedly tried to invite himself to a trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran earlier this month. Claiming that Assad’s chemical warfare capabilities had been destroyed, he took credit for talking Trump into staying in Syria. Macron added that the most recent airstrikes also drove a wedge between Turkey and Russia.

It is no secret that Turkey’s strengthening cooperation with Russia has unsettled Western governments. To nobody’s surprise, Western media discuss at length whether Turkish foreign policy has fallen prey to an axis shift. My sense is that the French president has been unable to accurately analyze Turkey’s support for the Western response to Assad’s most recent chemical attack. For years, Ankara has been calling on the international community to punish the Syrian regime for crossing their redlines. Turkish leaders have been among the most vocal critics of the West for failing to develop a comprehensive Syria policy and turning a blind eye to Assad’s massacres. Meanwhile, Turkish officials continue to explain to their French and U.S. counterparts why arming the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the name of fighting Daesh was a bad idea. Let us not forget that it was the West’s lack of a coherent policy and anti-Turkish activities that laid the groundwork for closer cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey in Syria – although they do have competing interests on the ground. To be clear, Macron’s decision to host a group of YPG militants in Paris was not exactly helpful, either. Finally, it is important to note that Ankara never refrained from working with other players whose goals in Syria overlapped with its own vision. A Turkish proposal to liberate Raqqa in cooperation with the U.S. is a case in point. It is not surprising that Turkey, which has been consistently anti-Assad in recent years, would support Western airstrikes against the Syrian regime. Provided that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly raised the issue of civilian casualties in phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the idea that a limited operation against regime targets could derail Turkey’s partnership with Russia is unrealistic. Turkish-Russian relations, which survived Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet and the assassination of Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara, are resilient enough to overcome last week’s airstrikes. After all, it is based on mutual interests rather than ideological polarization. It serves the interests of both countries to preserve their rational relationship.

The West cannot seriously expect to drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia unless it commits to Assad’s removal from power or abandoning the YPG. Therefore, the French president must start paying attention instead of daydreaming about a small and easy victory in Syria. To be clear, his support to the YPG has a negative impact on Turkish-French and Turkish-EU relations. If Macron wants to take his most recent diplomatic efforts beyond theatrics, he must not betray Ankara’s trust. After all, Paris cannot find a seat at the negotiating table by antagonizing Turkey.

Source: Daily Sabah

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Burhanettin Duran received his B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Bogazici University in 1993 and obtained his Ph.D in Political Science from Bilkent University in 2001. Currently, Dr. Duran is a Professor at Ibn Haldun University and the General Coordinator of SETA Foundation.