ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labeled Syrian President Bashar Assad “a terrorist” in a news conference in Tunis on Wednesday. He was speaking alongside his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi.
“Assad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism,” Erdogan said. “It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?”
Erdogan also said that peace would not come to Syria while Assad remained its president and that the Syrian regime should play no part in designing the country’s political future.
Mete Sohtaoglu, an Istanbul-based researcher of Middle East politics, thinks that Erdogan’s statement is a message for Moscow and Tehran, encouraging them to clarify the schedule for Assad’s removal.
“The key question is: What can Turkey achieve through talking to Assad that it cannot achieve through talking to Iran and Russia?” Sohtaoglu told Arab News. “Talking to Assad would not be a solution to any of Turkey’s problems. It would, instead, lead to Turkey losing all of its trump cards in Syria.
“Establishing a dialogue with Damascus will cause the US to perceive Ankara as part of the Russia-Iran-Syria axis,” he continued. “Then the US and all anti-Assad actors would increase their political support for the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a consequence.”
According to Sohtaoglu, no party will be able to instigate a plan in the region or determine a political direction without the support of Turkey.
“At the end of the day, Russia and Iran will have to give up their support of Assad,” he said.
Dozens of Syrian opposition parties have refused to take part in the Russian-sponsored Sochi peace talks slated for next month because they believe Moscow has failed to put sufficient pressure on Assad.
Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst from Marmara University in Istanbul, said the problem of Assad’s political future has always topped the list of Turkey’s disagreements with Russia and Iran.
“President Erdogan’s latest statement proves once again that Turkey’s position on this issue has not changed substantially despite its strategic rapprochement with Moscow and Tehran through the Astana process,” Ersen told Arab News.
Yet, according to Ersen, Turkey currently faces more pressing issues in Syria, including the presence of Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), along with a possible Turkish military operation in Syria’s Afrin district, which is currently under the control of Syrian Kurdish militia.
Ersen believes that Turkey might want to exploit the growing rift between the Assad regime and the PYD/YPG in order to advance its own interests in Syria, as Assad has recently been critical of the PYD/YPG forces, even calling them “traitors” in one of his latest interviews.
Even if that happens, however, Turkey still needs the backing of Russia and Iran for any action it takes against the PYD/YPG.
“Ankara needs the support of Russia and Iran in order to take steps to solve these problems,” Ersen noted. “Therefore, at this stage, the issue of Assad will probably be secondary in Ankara’s negotiations with Moscow and Tehran.”