The Turks just shot down a Russian warplane over Syria, raising the stakes for all concerned with the crisis in Syria. What should we be doing about it? Impose a no-fly zone? That would be the height of folly. What else then?
Basically, we are on a prudent and sound course. Obama is quietly moving toward a more rational approach to the Syria tangle. We no longer hew to the ‘Asad must go’ mantra as a prerequisite, we have retreated to one letting Asad stay on, perhaps, for up to six months, and we are struggling to redefine which opposition groups are good guys and which are jihadists. Let’s assume that this sensible new direction continues, with the support of the EU which is up to its neck in refugees, and the Russians, who have been urging us to move this way for some time now.
The sticking points will be Ankara and Riyadh. Let me concentrate here on the Turks, who still insist Asad must go at once, and who are more worried about the Kurds than about ISIS. As we all know, they can be pretty stubborn when they dig their heels in, but the recent incident with the Russian warplane is a cogent reminder of the risks to all of us of going it alone. Turkey must be brought to align its definition of who to attack and who to defend with the emerging consensus.
The number one factor here, for the Turks, is the Kurds. Whatever the rest of us do will be closely observed in Ankara and judged for its possible effect on their own Kurds and/or the ones next door in Iraq and Syria. What are the opportunities here, as well as the risks, as we consider our options? On the one hand we can annoy Erdogan by supporting Kurdish aspirations in Syria and Iraq, and conversely we can pressure him by making it clear we are considering various forms of such support but haven’t yet decided. This is hardball, but that is the game Turkey plays and it will be understood.
NATO is almost as important an avenue toward influencing the Turks. We and the Europeans will see eye to eye on this issue and will be able to devise various approaches. If Erdogan sees that all the other important players in NATO are united in their approach to the Syrian tangle, that will in itself be a good beginning.
There are possible economic approaches, particularly regarding Turkey’s key role providing an outlet for ISIS to market its petroleum. Turkey can be made to pay a price for its continued noncooperation with the rest of us.
Most important of all is that we agree with the Europeans, and hopefully even with Russia, on a clear vision for the future of the region, including Asad’s Syria and the territory controlled by ISIS. This is what current negotiations are all about. Should Syria’s territorial boundaries be restored or should there be some new arrangement? Should the secular nature of the new regime or regimes be guaranteed and if so how? And so on down the line with related issues.
If we can agree on our goal, and get the Turks and Saudis on board, we’ll have started a viable process leading to unsnarling the tangle of ISIS.
Meanwhile the oncoming primary elections are kicking up a lot of confusion, especially among Republican candidates who are only interested in exploiting fear of a terrorist attack for their own purposes. As usual, clear thinking about actual solutions is hard to find.