If Trump and Kim Can Speak – So Too Can Al-Assad and Erdogan

When it comes to both a national rivalry and a personal rivalry, the one which sprung up between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump is difficult to match. While threats of war went back and forth, so do did personal insults. While Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have traded their share of insults since Ankara’s involvement in the present conflict in Syria, none have been so colourful as those exchanged between Trump and Kim and more importantly, while Trump and Kim both intended their exchanges to be heard internationally, much of the disparaging remarks Erdogan stated about Al-Assad were intended primarily for domestic partisan consumption and the same is true in respect of Al-Assad’s remarks about Erdogan.

In 2018, it is abundantly clear to any objective observer that Turkey is not going to “destroy” the Syrian Arab Republic. It is also clear that the Syrian Arab Republic is not going to avenge Turkey’s involvement in Syria with a war against Turkey. By contrast, Donald Trump did threaten to “destroy” North Korea while North Korean officials responded by saying that they would in-turn destroy the US through nuclear retaliation. Far from being a bluff, most military technology experts agree that North Korea can now deliver an ICBM with a nuclear payload anywhere on US soil, while of course the US has long been capable of doing the same in respect of the Korean peninsula.

The Korean states formally exist in a state of war, since 1953 it has been almost exclusively relegated to a cold war. While Turkey did indeed invade Syria illegally, its status in Syria today is somewhat more ambiguous as Turkey along with long time Syrian partners Russia and Iran form the Astana Group, which with the consent of the Syrian government, is working towards a peaceful resolution to the present conflicts. Furthermore, Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch has shown a clear pivot of Turkey’s strategy from an anti-Syrian operation to an anti-YPG/PKK operation. While Syria still disapproves of Turkey’s presence on its sovereign territory, Ankara’s strategic pivot is nevertheless an important development as it shows that Turkey is no longer interested in direct conflict with Syria and its partners and has said so quite clearly. Crucially, while Syria’s declared enemies in the US, EU and “Israel” supported Operation Euphrates Shield (tacitly in Tel Aviv’s case), the US, EU and “Isarel” have all come out to condemn Operation Olive Branch. This is indicative of a pivot on the part of Turkey, as the US, EU and “Israel” remain opposed to the survival of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic, even though there is increasingly little they can do to bring their fantasy to life.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that as recently as 48 hours ago, it was unthinkable that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would sit down for a face-to-face meeting. Now, according to Trump himself, the meeting is presently being arranged.

While the US is not on particularly good terms with Russia or China and while China has particularly distant relations with the DPRK under Kim Jong-un, Beijing and Moscow both welcome the Trump-Kim meeting as a step towards the de-escalation policies which both China and Russia sincerely advocate.

In Syria, a third party helping to bring about direct talks between Al-Assad and Erdogan is an even more motivating factor as Russia is an historically valued partner of Syria, while in recent years, Russia has also become a valued partner with Turkey. Iran has good relations with Russia, increasingly good relations with Turkey and continually positive relations with Syria. Russia in particular is keen to see all sides in the conflict speak with one another and the most realistic first step would be for two neighbouring states, Syria and Turkey, to at least resume dialogue after generally healthy relations were disrupted by the onset of the western instigated conflict in 2011.

In terms of what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump want from each other, this much is already clear. Trump seeks denuclearisation and Kim seeks international security guarantees to insure the safety of his country, while also seeking an end to the US militarisation of South Korea, while both sides ostensibly seek a way to materially profit from peace and reconciliation.

For Syria and Turkey, both sides need to address their present concerns about one another directly. Syria wants a guarantee of a Turkish withdrawal from the country (ideally with a short timetable), which Turkey has already said will eventually happen, while Turkey seeks pledges that Syrian soil will not become a base for anti-Turkish PKK terrorism. Whether they admit it or not, both sides also need to reach an understanding that the close US relationship with Kurdish terrorists in Syria is a threat to the territorial integrity of nations across the region.Taken in totality, the goals which Damasus and Ankara seek are ultimately far more easily achieved than that which will be discussed during the first ever meeting between a US and North Korean head of state.

In this sense, while emotions run high in respect of both DPRK-US relations and Syria-Turkey relations, ultimately a dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish Presidents could have far more immediate results than the protracted efforts that will likely be required during what will surely be protracted discussions between Washington and Pyongyang.

In this sense, if Kim and Trump can do it, so too can Al-Assad and Erdogan. In both cases, dialogue presents no harm to either side and could potentially prove meaningful for both sides, in both instances. Furthermore, the precedent that will soon be set in a Trump/Kim summit has tremendous implications for Syria and Turkey. It demonstrates that no matter how many threats, personal insults, acts of hostility and military manoeuvres transpire to create tensions, dialogue is still ultimately possible. Many of Al-Assad’s supporters will never like Erdogan and many Erdogan supporters will never like Al-Assad, but this is a secondary consideration when so much is at stake. Both leaders owe it to their own long term pragmatic interests to pick up the phone, call their mutual partner Vladimir Putin and say “We’re ready to attempt a conversation”.

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