Turkey and Russia's role after the Geneva agreement by Ramazan Gözen*
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a press conference in Moscow. (Photo: AA)
The shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syria has not only heightened Turkish-Syrian tensions but has also speeded up the efforts to find a solution to the Syria crisis. To this end, the Syria Action Group convened on June 30 in Geneva at the behest of international envoy Kofi Annan.
The group, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Turkey, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait and the representatives of the UN and the EU, reached an agreement for an interim government to be set up in Syria. In line with the Geneva declaration, the interim government will carry Syria to general elections. That agreement lit a torch of hope for peace, though it is unclear at the moment how realistic that hope is as uncertainty over how the Geneva agreement will be implemented still persists.
The Syria crisis, which has so far essentially been a domestic problem, has risen to the level of an international military conflict following the downing of the Turkish jet. Turkey, having changed the rules of engagement with Syria, has unfortunately increased the possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries. Although the major actors are Turkey and Syria, Russia's role should not be ignored. The clear support lent by Moscow to Syria and the presumption that the downing was carried out by a Russian-made missile unequivocally reveal Russia's role.
There are three points whereby we can summarize the formula for solution generated by the Geneva agreement. First and foremost, the agreement asked for an interim government to be set up, a constitution to be drawn up, elections to be held and reforms to be enacted. There was consensus that President Bashar al-Assad's rule of the country was not along desired lines and that his exit was imperative. That has created the possibility of the previously dysfunctional Annan plan to be revived.
The second and the most important dimension of the agreement is the inclusion of Russia and Turkey in the process. It may have previously escaped attention but the most effective foreign actors or sides in the Syria crisis are in fact Turkey and Russia. Although the roles of such countries as Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot be underrated, Turkey's open support for the Syrian opposition and that of Russia for the Assad administration have made the two countries key players in the Syrian crisis. That is why it is possible to say there are some tensions between Turkey and Russia. The good relations that Turkey and Russia enjoyed in the past 10 years have been overshadowed by the Syrian crisis.
The Geneva agreement's effect on Turkish-Russian relations
Now a new ray of light has emerged thanks to the Geneva agreement. That agreement can also be a good opportunity for Turkey and Russia to play a leading role regarding Syria. Talks held between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 18 may have favorable ramifications in the wake of the Geneva meeting. It is high time for Turkey and Russia to manage a formula to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Turkish-Russian dialogue can and should kick-start a new process for peace in Syria with the participation and contributions of other countries. They can work together to implement the decisions agreed in Geneva. Turkey, using the strong influence it has with the Syrian opposition, and Russia, ratcheting up pressure on the Assad regime, can spearhead the setting up of a new Syrian government and can support the emergence of a new Syrian state with all segments of society represented in it.
For the sake of realism, it is appropriate to argue that the pivotally important problem in that process is the disagreement over what Assad's position will be in the new era. The US and Turkey are strongly in favor of Assad's exit while Russia shows no flexibility in that regard and insists on lending its support to the regime.
We believe that even the fact that this process has reached this point is an opportunity and must be made good use of. Turkey and Russia should work on alternative formulas for solution so as not to miss out on that opportunity. The solution to a potentially dangerous problem should never be made contingent on Assad's rule. Important as he is as a leader, Assad is not what Syria is only made up of. And it should be acknowledged that the fate of Syrians being indexed to a single person cannot be rational in any way.
Meanwhile, given the grassroots support which Assad enjoys, his supporters should not to be ignored. Just as the Americans' exclusion of the Baath party and its supporters in Iraq led to an intensification of confrontations, a similar development would be likely to occur in Syria, which needs attention to avoid a recurrence of the same mistake. As for Assad's situation, he must be made to realize that his passion to retain power will drag Syria into a catastrophe. The Syrian leader and his circle need to take into consideration the Arab Spring changes and the fact that the incumbent administration has worn out its welcome and show the courage to help set up a new Syria. If Assad cannot achieve that on his own, his close allies, Russia in particular, have to persuade him about the destructive consequences of his recalcitrance to release his grip on power.
In conclusion, Turkey and Russia have to contribute to that process. We are of the conviction that a new Syrian government can be set up under the guidance of Turkey and Russia. If those two countries agree, the other actors will be bound to lend their support. Even such opposite poles as Iran and the US can be encouraged with a Turkey-Russia formula. What is more, a cooperation of that kind can usher in ways of resolving many of the problems of the Middle East, including the Iranian nuclear crisis.
* Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Yıldırım Beyazıt University.