Below are seven key changes that need to occur for Turkey to be able to contain the current fallout from its ad hoc Syria policies particularly since 2012. They are written from the perspective of Turkey's security and long term interests.
1) Shift policy focus from toppling Assad to ensuring immediate and nationwide ceasefire: It is high time to completely re-orient Turkey's focus. Yes, Assad staying in power is not conducive to positive peace, but in the immediate necessity of negative peace, ceasefire is much more important. Turkey can and should maintain its view that Assad cannot stay in office, but should not in anyway be part of any effort to oust him through military means. Such efforts did not, and will not work, and while it is Assad who is culpable for his crimes, pushing for that outcome is only producing new victims and refugees. Turkey has done all it can, and paid a serious price for it. It now has no option to prioritise both its safety, and establishment of peace in Syria.
2) Take a longer view on advances of PKK related groups in Northern Syria: Turkey has every right to be concerned with PKK achieving a territory it governs in Northern Syria. It is fair to assume it will only be a serious security risk for Turkey until there is an indefinite ceasefire and end of hostilities between Turkey and PKK, which is not possible in the near future. While Turkey has taken a strong diplomatic line in challenging its allies empowering actors with direct relationship with PKK, it has also shelled YPG targets and threatened a stronger action. In realistic terms, Turkey cannot stop YPG by merely such a threat or limited shelling, to do so would require a serious military investment including sending troops, which is out of question at this stage. Such responses also impact relations with key allies such as US negatively, which Turkey cannot afford to let deteriorate. The other option is to take a longer view: continue diplomatic stand within a constructive frame that just like with Iraq's KRG, a Kurdish ruled part of Syria could be a great partner for Turkey but that means PKK has to end hostilities to Turkey, and play a waiting game to see the end of PKK advances. It is one thing to seize a land in current conditions in Syria with US and Russian air backup and international goodwill vis a vis fighting ISIS, all together another to maintain it when those factors change and militancy needs to give way to governance. There is still the question of how Sunni Arabs forced out of their homes and rest of Syrians, including Assad regime, will eventually respond to advances of PKK related groups. Turkey's harsh responses might only be undermining its long term interests. If in the process of quick changes Kurdish groups in Syria follow KRG's model and move on from PKK's hold, then it is only good for news for Turkey. Ultimately, however, only a domestic solution to Kurdish issues in Turkey will ease security risks emerging from Syrian territory. Therefore, the main security threat for Turkey is domestic and Turkey can find a way to solve it unlike developments in Syria.
3) Continue to be a cautious partner in anti-ISIS campaigns: Turkey was right to be weary and sceptical of willy nilly US quick-fixes on ISIS. It is right to remain so and offer support but do not pursue any adventure without full commitment from US and all allies. It is after all only Turkey with a 900 km border with Syria, not US or any other concerned Western ally. ISIS is here to remain in myriad forms, and its root causes and future of Sunni experiences in Iraq and Syria will demand a truly complex diplomacy from Turkey, which can be undermined by ill thought through 'defeat ISIS with any idea possible, but only ISIS not sort out rest of the country' approach. Without a robust focus on stability in Iraq and Syria, all anti-ISIS efforts are temporary victories. However, Turkey has to take domestic threat from ISIS networks much more seriously and work much more closely with European allies on counter-terrorism for its own security.
4) Gradually distance from all armed groups within Syria: It is time to clearly accept: supporting of armed groups did not achieve the aim. It has made Turkey vulnerable, charged relations with allies, placed it within a proxy war with other stakeholders it cannot afford to lose. It is time to gradually pull back from all direct support and engagement. If the process is handled right, it can even open new diplomatic influences for Turkey in post-conflict Syria. It has been a risky, and ultimately truly costly and counter-productive policy with serious human costs and security outcomes. It has placed Turkey within regional fault lines that it cannot maintain. Turkey has to retreat to its pre 2011 policies of being a neutral partner with all countries in the region based on geo-economic interests.
5) Make border security number one priority: Turkey has undertaken some impressive steps on security of its Syria border last 18 months. It must continue to advance them, and make border security a priority. This is not about the usual 'jihadi highway' perspectives, but about the fact that Syria will take decades to recover from what it has gone through, and a failed state on borders is never a positive for any country.
6) Start preparations for the next phase: This too shall pass, like each war. Sooner or later fatigue, field victories, consumption of resources and will to fight will de-escalate the armed clashes. It will then be about localised skirmishes and tensions, and eventually re-construction of the country. Turkey will be the main passage way for reconstruction, from provisions of goods to hosting of all international actors that will work on reconstruction for decades to come. This will give Turkey a serious economic boost and an important influence channel in Syria and internationally. But this can only happen and reach a maximum profit if Turkey is seen as a neutral peace supporter for a unified Syria and protection of all Syrians. Turkey's honourable treatment of Syrian refugees will be a truly positive platform for Turkish share of reconstruction of Syria. It is time to prepare Turkish businesses, NGOs, civil society, and diplomats for the next phase.
7) Internalise a Syrian population as part of Turkey: Some Syrians will never leave Turkey. Many Syrians are being born and will see Turkey as much as home as their countries of origin. Till Syria is fully back on its knees, many have no incentive and so much trauma to face if they return. Thus, Turkey has to internalise a sizeable Syrian population as its own from now on. Its focus on Syrians cannot be short term management of 'guests'. They are not anymore. But they cannot be seen simply as burdens. They can play a seriously positive domestic economic and social role if their cohesion and adaptation is actively encouraged. While the latest EU deal has attracted headlines, and offers some temporary relief for troubled European politicians, for Turkey, question of Syrian refugees is a generational one. Therefore, they have to play a key aspect in a new Syria policy.