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Turkey’s Syrian Tangle

MADRID – As 2015 draws to a close, new steps – albeit small and tentative – have been taken toward ending the war in Syria. The United Nations Security Council has adopted Resolution 2254, expressing its backing for a transition out of the conflict, and the International Syria Support Group has set a date for its next meeting, to be held next month. But the ISSG comprises both allies and adversaries – for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran – meaning that continued progress will be a challenge.

Now, another pair of countries in the process, Turkey and Russia, appear headed down the road to mutual enmity. Turkey, whose proximity to Syria generates both challenges and opportunities, could play an especially significant role in shaping how the peace process plays out. But Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on its border with Syria last month has spurred a swift and sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, with the Kremlin imposing retaliatory economic sanctions.

Russia, for its part, is facing the tough reality of maintaining an active military presence in the Middle East. Its efforts to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (and thus to strengthen its own role at the negotiating table) places it at odds with the countries – including NATO member Turkey – that want Assad out.

The problem for Turkey is that its interests are not as straightforward as stopping the Islamic State (ISIS), or even driving Assad from power. It also aims to ensure that Kurdish groups – such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, which is closely affiliated with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – do not consolidate control of territory in Syria, now or during the post-conflict reconstruction.