The fall of Aleppo to Syrian regime forces, now a real possibility after five years of war, would be a dramatic victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Russia, as well as an embarrassing defeat for America, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries backing Syria’s rebels. But the symbolic stakes of this victory should not overshadow the fact that even if Assad remains firmly in power, Iran and Russia will have succeeded in just barely preserving the strategic status quo from before the Syrian civil war. Their military and economic contributions to Assad’s forces will secure them greater influence over his regime going forward, but, compared to 2010, it will be a much-weakened regime.
In some ways, for Turkey too Assad’s victory would simply be a return to the status quo. Certainly, having a hostile regime in Damascus would not be anything new for Ankara; Syrian-Turkish relations were strained even before Syrian independence when Turkey annexed the province of Hatay, and the two countries quickly found themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War. Furthermore, in 1999 Syria’s support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) reached the point where Turkey threatened to invade to put a stop to it.
Nonetheless, Turkey is still in the unique position of standing to lose much more from Syria’s civil war than its winners stand to gain. If Syria’s rebels are defeated and Assad continues to consolidate his control of the country, Turkey would simultaneously find itself facing an embittered Syrian government, a semi-independent Kurdish statelet on its borders governed by the People’s Democratic Party (PYD), and whatever arrangement it arrived at with Europe, millions of refugees hesitant to return to Assad’s Syria. Also ISIS. In Syria, but also as the group’s recent attacks reveal, now embedded within Turkey as well.
Today, the challenge for Turkish policymakers largely consists of determining how many of these risks it can effectively forestall and which among them to prioritize. If there is any consolation for Ankara, it certainly lies in the fact that its enemies in Syria—Assad, the PYD and ISIS—are not terribly fond of each other either.
Though Turkey now seems more willing to cooperate with Washington against ISIS, it continues to infuriate U.S. policymakers by being more focused on the threat posed by the Syrian Kurds. Indeed, at times Ankara even seemed to welcome ISIS advances against the PYD as a means of checking the group’s power. Though the moral calculus behind Turkey’s priorities may be deeply troubling, there is an undeniable strategic logic. The PYD’s sister organization, the PKK, is currently at war with the Turkish government, while ISIS, despite its threats, has limited its attacks in Turkey to anti-government protestors and foreign tourists.
Now, it appears, Turkey is so focused on its struggle with the PKK that it is more concerned with limiting the PYD’s gains in Syria than it is with slowing the Assad regime’s advance. With Assad’s forces blocking Turkey’s main supply route to Aleppo, for example, the Kurdish canton of Afrin could offer an alternative way to reach the city. Last spring, before the conflict between Turkey and the PKK was re-inflamed, the Turkish army carried out a mission to rescue an Ottoman-era tomb in Syria with tacit cooperation from PYD sources. But whatever the benefits of adopting a more constructive approach to the PYD, Turkey’s domestic conflict with the PKK has made this a non-starter.
The defeat of rebel forces around Aleppo is particularly dangerous for U.S.-Turkish relations because support for these groups was one of the few points on which both countries agreed. It is still unclear what risks leaders in Ankara or Washington are willing to take to prevent the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian regime or the collapse of other rebel-held areas. Even the most aggressive actions currently being contemplated though would only preserve pockets of rebel-held territory and win Turkey a limited place “at the table” in subsequent negotiations. In short, it will do little to mitigate the difficult choices between Assad, the PYD, and ISIS that Turkey now finds itself facing, or the tension that these choices create in its relationship with the United States.