By Verda Özer
“We are ready for normalization with Israel,” said a top official in Ankara who I met this week. My question was this: Is Turkey considering normalizing its relations with Israel and Egypt, which are the only countries offering stability in the region other than Iran?
The official continued: “There is only the compensation issue remaining. After this is solved, we could send back our ambassador and relations would be normalized.”
What about Egypt? “Egypt is a long-term issue. It will take some time. Neither side is ready.”
These two answers point to the fact that Turkey is currently going through a re-evaluation in light of regional developments.
Today there is an unprecedented strategic disconnect between Turkey and the U.S. Their strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria are completely different. The U.S. has made it clear repeatedly that its top priority is destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whereas Turkey’s priorities are Bashar al-Assad and the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which is the dominant affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Rojava (northern Syria).
Let’s start with al-Assad. He has not only been able to survive, but also to strengthen his position. The U.S. airstrikes against ISIL in Syria have helped him the most, enabling him to focus on other rebels. Al-Assad has recently started to provide the PYD with military aid as well, so he is giving the message that he is more than ready for cooperation with the coalition. There's no need to mention too that Russia and Iran are still backing him.
On the other hand, it will take some time until the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be strong enough to fight against both al-Assad and ISIL. Due to all these circumstances, the U.S. seems to have removed al-Assad from its agenda, even though like Ankara it doesn’t like al-Assad.
Having talked to several top officials in Ankara, my observation is that Ankara’s insistence on removing al-Assad is not just a temporary thing. The dominant mood is: “We just need to know what the end game is and that al-Assad will go at the end.” However this demand is tying Ankara’s hands in negotiations and limits its cooperation with the U.S. It might also remove the opportunity to be one of the playmakers in Syria.
As for the PYD, Ankara wants it to align with Turkey and position itself against al-Assad. Turkey is also concerned that the PKK-affiliated organization might direct its guns against Turkey in due course. This is why Ankara is urging the PYD to come to the same line as the FSA and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
But the facts on the ground are changing very rapidly, and the PYD has become the U.S.’s natural and strongest ally in Syria. Moreover, it is uniting its forces with northern Iraq. It has also become clear that excluding Rojava puts the peace process in Turkey at risk, and could also harm Turkey’s relations with northern Iraq.
This all will leave Turkey with a different reality along its borders once the U.S. and ISIL are gone from the region. The borders between northern Iraq, Turkey and Syria have already effectively become meaningless. The fact that Arbil has delivered its aid to Kobane through Turkey is the best example of this.
Therefore, Turkey can only win if it is to improve its relations with Rojava, just as it has done with northern Iraq over the last decade. This would also enable Ankara to unite the Kurds in the region under its sphere of influence.
The insecurity, instability and uncertainty in the region urge regional countries to be flexible and form new alliances. These conditions also make Turkey’s need for regional allies projecting security and stability more important than ever. The longer and deeper the war, the stronger this need will become. The fact that Ankara is keeping its door open to Israel and Egypt implies such flexibility.