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Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey and a Region in Crisis
How Turkey’s Ties to the West May Survive the Syrian War
How Turkey’s Ties to the West May Survive the Syrian War
Speech / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. Our Director of Communications & Outreach Hugh Pope looks back on two decades of change in a keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What Went Right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s.
  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama's demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

How Turkey’s Ties to the West May Survive the Syrian War

Crisis Group's Middle East & North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann participated in the 2018 Körber Policy Game, designed to explore possible outcomes in the event of a crisis between Turkey and the West in Syria. While the exercise underscored many of the Syrian conflict's complexities, it also revealed that a strong desire by stakeholders to find common ground can help overcome them.

You can listen to an interview with Joost Hiltermann about his experiences at the event here.

If it were up to regional experts advising their governments, things in the Middle East needn’t look so bad: the Syrian conflict could be contained; a war between Israel and Iran could be avoided, and so, too – and more importantly – a war between Russia and the United States; and Turkey would return to providing regional stability, anchored firmly in the West through its NATO membership.

At least, such can be concluded from a one-day “policy game” in Berlin on July 2 that focused on crisis management in Turkey’s neighbourhood. Brought together by the Körber-Stiftung in a so-called scenario exercise, participants from Russia, the U.S., Turkey and Europe – some of them government officials, others with more informal advisory roles at home – tried to navigate a path toward the best possible outcomes for their countries in response to imagined future developments involving Syria and Turkey. The questions guiding the exercise were: What are Turkey’s foreign policy options in case of a crisis situation in Syria, in particular toward its relations with the West and Russia? What are the interests and preferences of Russia and the U.S. in such a case? And what role would Europe play?

There is a certain artificiality to such an exercise. The scenarios, which project twelve months into the future based on current realities, are plausible but not probable; any unanticipated incident could dramatically alter the trajectory of events, rendering the best possible policy advice instantly obsolete. Once you get one move wrong (in this case, there were three), any subsequent move, which derives from your decisions taken in the previous ones, unavoidably goes wrong as well, carrying you ever further from the core of the problem, and your ability to effectively tackle it.

What I discovered is that this sort of exercise is potent not for its predictive powers – which are feeble – but for the discussion it triggers and the channels it opens. On this score, it is priceless. It helps clarify perceptions, policy priorities and positions, preoccupations, fears and red lines, as well as areas of divergence and convergence. And it creates bonds of trust that could translate into honest communication, if not cooperation, between the participants in addressing future crises involving their governments. Call me a convert.

Still, there is reason to be sceptical. The selection of participants was, by the nature of the beast, selective, even if carried out in good faith and with the intent to attract a range of political opinion. Nuance in policy positions was likely lost. As anyone who has been part of a bureaucracy will readily acknowledge, opinions on any emotive issue are as many as there are people in the room, and battles are fiercely fought, in most cases forcing a difficult compromise that threads the policy needle. Instead, in a scenario exercise such as this one, we were working with what amounted to types: views that were only broadly representative of different policy lines.

What I discovered is that this sort of exercise is potent not for its predictive powers – which are feeble – but for the discussion it triggers and the channels it opens.

This, too, was useful in stirring discussion, but I could not help but notice that there appeared to be a salutary and shared sentiment in the room toward wanting to resolve conflict, and that this derived from the participation of policy experts who were principally inclined to accept the invitation to join such an exercise in the first place. What about those who seek war to advance their national interests? Would they have readily agreed to participate as well? This, one must doubt.

This inherent self-selecting bias produced an admirable convergence on conflict resolution in Syria, which found its expression in the notion that no one present sought a prolongation of the war; instead, everyone worked hard to devise ways to prevent its inadvertent escalation through misread signals or “black swans” – abrupt game-changing events to which no one is quite prepared to respond, because no plans for such eventualities exist. I can only wish that in any future real policy debate back home, these advisers prevail for the sensibility and humanity they exhibited in Berlin.

What emerged was that all participants, unanimously, deemed the Syrian crisis extremely dangerous not just for the harm it has done to Syrians, but also for its potential to bleed across borders and ignite secondary, possibly more deadly conflicts in the region. The scenario design contributed to what appeared like a mounting concern across the teams, as each move introduced new volatile elements in an already unstable situation. It climaxed in the question not just how to end the Syrian war but how to preserve the regional and international order. In other words, the exercise was not so much about Syria and Turkey, as its title indicated, but about the overall regional equation involving Turkey, Iran, Israel and the Gulf states, and ultimately about the tense relationship between the United States and Russia, and how to avert a death spiral toward a third world war.

Based on this shared perception, everyone started looking for ways to defuse the crisis. In our individual team discussions (whose conclusions we would communicate to the plenary following each move) we emphasised what we saw as our nations’ bottom-line concerns, shedding our preferred outcomes in the Syrian war in favour of a flexibility that focussed on possible areas of common interest as a basis for at least limited or tactical cooperation.

As a participant noted, the Europeans are vegetarians in Syria compared to the other powers, who are carnivores

For example, while the European team expressed deep scepticism about dealing with a Turkey ruled by an autocrat, they identified protecting Europe’s unity and cohesion as their overriding goal. To this they subordinated Europe’s approach not only toward Turkey (keeping it in the Western alliance), but also toward the Syrian regime (no reconstruction funding without a meaningful political transition), Russia (encouraging it to back the Geneva process and a political transition), the United States (strengthening its commitment to the Geneva process and keeping U.S. troops in Syria), and issues such as the migrant/refugee crisis (maintaining the deal with Turkey) and fighting the Islamic State as part of the U.S.-led coalition. The team assigned particular importance to the need for Russia and the U.S. to preserve their de-confliction mechanism in Syria.

As the crisis worsened with the game’s third move, the European team found itself clutching at straws, recognising they had a particularly poor hand compared to the two super powers and Turkey, all with assets on the ground in Syria. The result was an almost desultory resort to declaratory responses: urging the parties to de-escalate, and offering no more than diplomatic support. Thus it became clear that while such an approach did not endanger unity, it also exposed the fact that Europe’s main foreign policy strength – its soft power – has turned it into a bystander to the growing Syrian crisis from whose fallout it suffers, while its strategic ally, the U.S., has been reluctant to use its matching hard power to jointly effect a diplomatic end to the war. As a participant noted, the Europeans are vegetarians in Syria compared to the other powers, who are carnivores; as long as Europe lacks its own hard power, it won’t play a role until there is a political process that might give it limited leverage through its hands on the reconstruction purse.

The other teams likewise ordered their countries’ policy priorities. The Turkish team proposed Ankara’s to be as follows: a quick end to the Syrian war; every effort to avoid confrontation with the U.S. over the YPG (the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which both Turkey and the U.S. label a terrorist organisation); fighting the PKK with vigour, but not at the risk of straining Turkey’s relationship with NATO (indeed emphasising the importance Ankara continues to attach to NATO membership); a continued U.S. military presence in north-eastern Syria, despite U.S. support for the YPG, but only if a U.S. withdrawal would mean a resurgence of the Syrian regime there and increased Iranian influence; encouraging Europe to provide reconstruction funds even with Assad still in place (a marked departure from standing Turkish policy); and fighting the perception that Turkey is in Syria to stay, even if it finds it cannot afford to withdraw its forces for now.

With the third move, which suggested a major escalation between Turkey and the Syrian regime, the Turkish team counselled moderation. They proposed that Ankara open a communication channel with the Syrian regime and ask for international (especially Russian) mediation, efforts to stem the renewed flow of refugees and increased humanitarian assistance (at the threat of reopening its borders to Europe for refugees). This approach bespoke an acknowledgment of Turkey’s relative weakness in the face of a possible escalation in Syria directly affecting its military presence and the stability of its borders. Turkey’s fate in Syria, like that of other regional players (not present in the policy game), is ultimately at least partly dependent on actions by the two superpowers.

The Russian team acknowledged that the Syrian crisis was Russia’s to manage, but seemed eager to spread the responsibility to others with skin in the game. They therefore sounded a strikingly conciliatory tone, at least initially. They defined Russia’s main policy priority in Syria to be continued cooperation with the U.S., including in the fight against the Islamic State, despite deep scepticism concerning the reliability of the current White House tenant. They said Russia was committed to the Geneva process, but only if Assad’s ultimate departure would not be a condition. They pointed at Europe’s marginal role in Syria, while expressing hopes for European reconstruction funds, if only of a symbolic nature (likely to legitimise a resurrected Assad).

Most importantly, to preserve the Syrian regime and Russia’s other gains in Syria, they proposed that Moscow continue to play its precarious regional balancing act: cooperating with Iran without thereby provoking Israel, including by keeping Iranian proxies at some distance from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and cooperating with Turkey while protecting the Kurds, and encouraging a rapprochement between Damascus and the YPG that would see a degree of Kurdish autonomy and a sharing arrangement for the Deir al-Zour oil fields (without which, they claimed, the central government would be unable to function).

With the third move, the Russian tone became more strident. The team exhibited a distinct hardening in its attitude toward Turkey, suggesting that any attempt by Turkey to change the status quo in Syria would justify a military response by the Syrian regime. The team opposed any move that would threaten Syria’s territorial integrity; suggested that the Syrian regime has every right to retake Syrian territory, especially if the area is controlled by jihadists (excluded under the Astana agreement); mooted the possibility of arming the YPG; and advocated closer cooperation with Iran. At this point in the discussion, not a word was said about the U.S., indicating there was no desire in Moscow to even tweak the Syrian conflict’s overall direction.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Syrian crisis brooks no partial solutions; the interests of all stakeholders will need to find reflection in a final settlement, if we are to reach one.

The U.S. team started out assertively, almost as if on the premise that the United States has a finger in every Syrian pie. It does, of course, but the team’s aspirations intimated a capability Washington may not possess, except as spoiler. They started with the presupposition that there should be no early withdrawal of U.S. troops and proceeded to posit the need to counter the influence of both Russia and Iran (which happen to be the two predominant powers in Syria); to continue fighting the Islamic State, while balancing relations between the Kurdish and Arab partners in the local alliance Washington backs (the YPG-led Syrian Defence Forces); and to keep Turkey in NATO, while persuading it to accept pluralistic and multi-ethnic arrangements for governance in northeast Syria on terms that promote stability in the way the Kurdish region in northern Iraq has.

The dearth of workable policy responses to a rapidly evolving situation – as the plot thickened with moves two and three – suggested a certain powerlessness. This may have sprung from the Trump administration’s evident lack of interest in investing in a Syrian endgame. Its priority seems to be to substitute Iran for the Islamic State as its main regional adversary – to be confronted in the smoking wreckage that is Syria.

I should also note who and what were missing from the policy game. There were no country teams for Iran or Israel, two key players. This was understandable, given the game’s focus on the Syrian war in relation to Turkey. There can be no doubt, however, that the Syrian crisis brooks no partial solutions; the interests of all stakeholders will need to find reflection in a final settlement, if we are to reach one. Missing also were European states other than Germany and France, and also no real sense of European commonality; The Europe team just paid lip-service to that fragile notion. Some issues one would expect to come up didn’t: no explicit mention by the Russian team of its country’s troop presence in Syria (only of the need for military-to-military cooperation and for all foreign forces to leave the country eventually), or the UN’s role and the Geneva process (except to say that Assad is reluctant to go down that path). No mention by the Turkish team of jihadists, whom they may be seeing as a lesser evil compared with the PKK/YPG. And no mention by the U.S. team of the European Union – an apparent irrelevancy – except as a supplier of humanitarian aid. Most sobering was the omission of any reference by anyone to the need to reassert values in international politics; the discussion strictly concerned interest-based trade-offs.

What emerged clearly from this policy game was that the main stakeholders in the Syrian conflict may be able to sign off in principle on a process to end it, as laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (December 2015), but only as long as the end point remains undefined and they think they can still shape this process in order to yield the outcome they desire. In the end, Russia sees the Syrian uprising as what caused the war, and thus wants to revert to the stable status quo ante, with the Assad regime still in place. By contrast, the U.S. and its allies see the regime’s violent response to the uprising as having sparked the war, and therefore want to see Assad gone. (Interestingly, the U.S. team didn’t even mention the regime’s departure as a U.S. policy goal.) Yet Russia, which has been pursuing the Astana process with Iran and Turkey precisely to get what it wants, holds the better cards. As one of the participants noted, we are living in a multi-axial work, with no single superpower or organising principle. In the Syrian crisis, it is Russia, not the U.S., that has the initiative and holds escalation dominance; with advantage comes responsibility: Moscow now must navigate a way out without making things worse for itself and everyone else.

From Ankara’s perspective, Russia may have things to offer, but these do not outweigh the benefits of Turkey staying in the Western alliance.

As for Turkey’s foreign policy direction, which was a main focus of this exercise: Despite initial concerns that Turkey would drift away from the Western alliance because of U.S./EU dissatisfaction with Turkey’s internal problems and Ankara’s anger at lack of NATO/U.S./EU support in its campaign to suppress the PKK in both Turkey and Syria, both sides strongly reaffirmed Turkey’s belonging to the Western family as the crisis in Syria escalated. Strains in the relationship will doubtless remain, but in the final analysis, Europe needs Turkey to manage the refugee crisis and keep jihadists in check, and Turkey needs European help in weakening the PKK. Likewise, the U.S. needs Turkey as a bulwark against Iran, Russia and jihadists; inversely, Turkey needs the U.S. as protector of last resort against Russia and Iran – especially if they support Kurdish irredentism – and it needs NATO’s support in countering the PKK/YPG when these groups threaten its borders. From Ankara’s perspective, Russia may have things to offer, but these do not outweigh the benefits of Turkey staying in the Western alliance. Russia must be engaged but not actively courted as a strategic alternative.

At the end of the day, I should have felt drained. Instead I was filled with a sense of exhilaration. I had been part of a tremendously stimulating set of conversations within and between four country teams about three successive scenarios that left me alarmed, as anyone covering the Syrian war should be, but not panicked. The war has taken a horrific toll on Syrian society, which will need generations to recover. But the conflict’s regional metrics do not (yet) give cause for despair. Sufficient common ground remains (for now) to prevent things from spinning out of control. The Körber Policy Game both led to that finding and helped contribute to it.