"Turkey can no longer insist on, you know, a settlement without [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, and it's not, you know, realistic. We just have to work with what we have,” he said.
This is a major admission from Ankara, which later claimed that Simsek's remarks were misconstrued, since it has spent years calling for Assad's ouster and supporting various groups, many Islamist, arrayed against him.
It's also an indication that Turkey and Russia have worked out a compromise over the future of Syria.
“Turkey's turn toward Russia is based on two assessments, that the Syrian opposition cannot win and that Turkey must prioritise stopping Kurdish national ambitions in Syria over those of assisting the opposition overthrow Assad,” Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab.
“Turkey's negotiations with Russia seem to be built around a deal in which Turkey agrees to eventually withdraw from Syria in favour of the regime,” he added.
“In exchange, Assad and the Russians will assist Turkey in thwarting Kurdish national ambitions in Rojava [Syria Kurdistan], by limiting Kurdish autonomy and preventing the PYD [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] from serving as a military base for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] and attacks on Turkey.”
Every time the Turkish government talked about intervening in Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011 it was always against the regime in support of the opposition.
|Every time the Turkish government talked about intervening in Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011 it was always against the regime in support of the opposition|
Ankara believed any intervention that did not deal with this core issue wouldn't succeed, and stressed as much.
Turkey's initial refusal to participate in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group, for example, partially stemmed from the fact that the US was intervening in Syria without confronting Assad.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even argued several times that Washington could not eradicate IS if it did not remove Assad, insisting that Assad was the reason these extremists were able to gain ground in the first place.
As recently as November 29 last year Erdogan raised eyebrows in Moscow when he announced, “We entered Syria to end the rule of the tyrant Assad who terrorises with state terror. [We didn't enter] for any other reason.”
The Kremlin subsequently called on Erdogan to clarify that remark, which he did in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a few days later. What exactly he told Putin in that phone call remains unclear.
|Erdogan even argued several times that Washington could not eradicate the Islamic State group if it did not remove Assad, insisting that Assad was the reason these extremists were able to gain ground in the first place|
Since launching its Euphrates Shield operation in northwestern Syria late last August the Turkish military has targeted Islamic State and the Syrian Kurdish PYD's armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, in support of 1,500-3,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy militiamen.
The operation was launched after the rapprochement with Russia last summer with the stated purpose of removing these groups from that border.
While Ankara jumped on the opportunity to prevent the YPG from linking up all its territories in Syria the fact it chose from the start to avoid confronting Assad has clearly rankled many of its allies in the Syrian opposition.
The very militiamen Turkey is supporting against IS and the Kurds spoke of how they yearned to join the opposition in Aleppo against Assad and his Russian backer.
|The very militiamen Turkey is supporting against IS and the Kurds spoke of how they yearned to join the opposition in Aleppo against Assad and his Russian backer|
Syrian regime forces and allied militias have since recaptured Aleppo and the Turkish government largely remained silent.
Erdogan's focus on preventing the YPG from coming to dominate the Syrian border with Turkey likely propelled him to sacrifice a struggle he knew the opposition in Aleppo could not win in return for forcefully stopping the YPG from taking over the last one-third of the Syrian border, which Turkey has long said is one of its red-lines in Syria.
“Turkey has changed its position on Assad because without US and NATO support it has found it could not sustain that position on its own, especially given the strong role being played by Russia in support of Assad,” Nabeel Khoury, a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council, told The New Arab.
“Turkey has now decided to work with Russia in order to keep its borders safe from IS, to continue to block the Syrian Kurds from expanding westwards and in order not to have any confrontations with Russia,” he added.
“This is the safest option for Turkey, but it is one which decreases its influence in the Sunni Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood no longer has any prospects in North Africa, and the Gulf states' relationship with Turkey will be a difficult one.”
Ankara's decision to cease championing the cause of Sunni Islamist opposition groups – many of whom are still holed up in the northwestern province of Idlib, who Turkey helped takeover in early 2015 with logistical and intelligence support – is a clear concession of defeat on this point.
They might manage to negotiate some agreement whereby groups it previously backed against Assad get some say on Syria's future.
What's certain now is that Turkey is destined to remain confined to Syria's northwest border region where the focus of its Euphrates Shield operation, contrary to Erdogan's retracted November 29 remarks, will remain keeping IS away from its border and the Kurds contained while leaving Assad's future to be decided upon by negotiation.