Policymakers are once again debating whether or not the United States ought to take a greater role in Syria’s civil war. Recent events have brought this question to the fore: reports from multiple countries of civilian exposure to chemical weapons; Israeli airstrikes against missiles intended for the terrorist group Hezbollah; and an ever-worsening refugee crisis in countries neighboring Syria. This debate, however, misses one fundamental question: even if the United States were to intervene, even if Assad were ousted, what would become of Syria then?
U.S. officials should begin preparing for a post-Assad Syria now, and they would do well to seek Turkey, one of our closest regional allies, assistance. First, however, they must find the common ground where U.S. and Turkish interests in Syria converge. A perfect occasion to do so will be Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House on May 16.
A new white paper by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Task Force, entitled U.S.-Turkish Cooperation toward a Post-Assad Syria, argues that U.S. interests in Syria depend heavily upon what happens if Assad goes. It also analyzes the divergence between U.S. and Turkish interests in Syria.
If Assad loses power, Syria, which is deeply divided across ethno-sectarian lines, will require a political transition that balances a strong central government with inclusion and representation for all minority groups. The alternatives – sectarian oppression or a failed state – are bleak. Either option would prolong the conflict, create more refugees, and undermine U.S. national security.
But while both the U.S. and Turkey share a strong interest in restoring stability to Syria, there is reason to believe that this convergence does not extend to the question of inclusivity. In Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated sectarian proclivities, throwing its support behind Sunni Islamists. This pattern is reinforced by Turkey’s concerns about the political fate of Syria’s Kurds.
Erdoğan has made great efforts to reach a peace deal with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state and which has strong support among Syria’s Kurds. Butany signs of Kurdish autonomy in Syria—which might be a necessary concession to keep a post-Assad Syria together—might derail Erdogan’s talks with the PKK, hence his preference for Sunni domination.
Given their shared desire to see Assad gone and stability reinstated in Syria, the U.S. and Turkey should work to overcome their differences. President Obama can make an important first step during the upcoming state visit by leveraging his close personal relationship with Erdoğan to secure a joint declaration–a common vision of what a post-Assad Syria should look like. By finding ways to work with Ankara on Syria, Washington can lay the foundation for a broader, more cooperative relationship that can help strengthen stability throughout the Middle East.