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Is Turkey on the cusp of restoring ties with Syria's Assad?

Is Turkey on the cusp of restoring ties with Syria's Assad?
7 min read
Analysis: Recent statements by Turkish government officials indicate that Ankara is preparing to restore ties with Damascus. Such a shift would have profound consequences for proponents of the Syrian revolution.

In the early days of Syria’s uprising in 2011, the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that Bashar al-Assad step down as the country’s president. It was part of a regional attempt to apply pressure on Syria’s leader to leave power.

At the time, the Arab world was experiencing revolutions that saw autocrats who were once permanently in charge suddenly disappear from the scene.

As these revolutions unfolded, it looked as if Assad was to share a similar fate to that of other Arab dictatorships, and Turkey was prepared to reap the benefits and even contribute to his downfall.

As the years passed, and with the increasing military support of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, it became clear that the Assad regime would not crumble. Several Arab states have moved ahead with normalising ties with Damascus.

Now, it may well be Turkey’s turn to replicate a similar thaw in relations with Syria.

What is driving Turkey-Syria reconciliation efforts?

In a meeting held in the southern Russian city of Sochi, Vladimir Putin told Erdogan that he should do everything in his power to reach out to Bashar al-Assad and restore relations. It appears likely that Erdogan could possibly even make a phone call to the Syrian leader.

Already, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disclosed that he spoke with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, at a Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Belgrade in October 2021. This was the first public high-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian government officials since 2011.

Cavusoglu reportedly told Mekdad that “we need to somehow come to terms with the opposition and the regime in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace”.

Officials from Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, have indicated that diplomatic talks could start at lower levels and work up towards a higher level later. Certainly a far cry from demanding Assad’s removal from power.

However, Turkey still supports many rebel factions against the Syrian state. In addition, the Turkish government has invested in infrastructure, economic and administrative structures, and power supplies to northern Syria, which the Financial Times described in mid-July as the “largest Turkish footprint in an Arab state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918”.

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Militias and refugees

The YPG is the main armed faction heading the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition. The SDF is a militia that is strongly backed by the United States in the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, which is active in the eastern Syrian desert.

Complicating the potential for Turkish-Syrian negotiations is the fact that the SDF and the Syrian regime have increased security cooperation and have established joint operation rooms in order to counter any new rebel offensives.

Nevertheless, with elections in 2023 on the horizon, Erdogan wants a political victory to take back to his people, who are suffering a terrible recession that has robbed them of much of their purchasing power. Will approaching Assad with open arms give it to him?

Following the trilateral summit in late July with the Iranian and Russian presidents in Tehran, and the second meeting with Putin in Sochi, Turkey subsequently intensified its drone campaign, targeting the SDF in northern Syria.

A deal with Turkey would ultimately have to involve Ankara abandoning the armed rebel groups it has been supporting. [Getty]

The threat of a Turkish ground campaign is looming as Turkish military vehicles crossed into Jarabulus on 17 August.

“The only solution to Turkish-Syrian relations is a return the 1998 Adana agreement that was hammered out between Damascus and Ankara at the time of (PKK leader) Abdullah Ocalan's expulsion from Syria. Russia has been pushing for it,” Dr Joshua Landis, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute who teaches Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab

“Turkey is key to Syria's future, economically and politically. Erdogan helped Syria tremendously in 2004 by refusing to side with the US effort to isolate Syria following the invasion of Iraq,” Landis said. 

“Both Turkey and Syria want to see US troops withdraw from Syria. Neither want an independent, Kurdish-dominated state in northeast Syria,” he explained.

The issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey is a great political concern for Erdogan. Social, economic, and political pressure has been increasing within Turkey to expel a large number of Syrian refugees in the country.

The UN refugee agency said that there are an estimated 800 refugees returning to Syria each week from Turkey, regardless of the security situation that awaits them in their homeland.

However, refugees might not agree to return to Syria, and how they would be reintegrated in the long run once they do return is unclear.

“We know that, currently, tens of thousands of people are being forcibly returned to areas that are under bombing by Russian and Syrian planes in northwest Syria. These people are being returned forcibly to those areas,” Karam Shaar, a Syria programme manager at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, told TNA.

“Imagine a political agreement between Turkey and Syria. Obviously, Turkey would return them back to Syria and say these areas are safe because now we have an agreement with the Syrian regime.”

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Uncertain military and humanitarian consequences

Yet, the bottom line for the Assad regime remains the same. He intends to recapture all of the territories that Damascus has lost over the years of war. A deal with Turkey would ultimately have to involve Ankara abandoning the armed rebel groups it has been supporting.

“Turkey continues to insist that Assad must incorporate the Syrian opposition into an inclusive, unity government in order for Turkey and Syria to reconcile. This is unlikely to happen,” Landis stated.

Landis explained, “It leaves Erdogan with a difficult problem: how to relinquish military and financial support for the many Syrian militias that he has backed and hoped would rule Syria. The two sides are a long way from reconciling their many differences, but the fact that both have begun to talk is important.”

The Assad regime intends to recapture all of the territories that Damascus has lost over the years of war. [Getty]

The largest Syrian Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) dominates Idlib province, where Turkey has positioned military outposts to prevent the Syrian regime’s forces from retaking the area.

In August, the HTS leader, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani, called for all Syrian opposition factions backed by Turkey to form a “united administration”.

The prospect of Turkey relinquishing its support for HTS in Idlib would create unpredictability, with nearly 3.4 million civilians currently living in the province. 

The main question is whether the opposition will agree to what Turkey has in mind for them.

“HTS’ support from the international community is virtually non-existent. If Turkey pulls its support from this group, it will disappear. Most of its leadership would be imprisoned. Most of their foreign fighters [would be] repatriated to their countries, especially to Central Asia and China,” Shaar said.

Within the political opposition, there will be some who would reject the prospect of a settlement that does not take their aspirations into account. Despite this, the vast majority would agree to taking some administrative positions in a government led by Assad, Shaar said.

As Turkey moves forward with negotiations with Assad, it will be critical to see how the armed rebel factions respond as Ankara begins to reconcile with the Syrian leader. Some of these groups will disband, but others will likely go down fighting or try to continue the revolution as underground movements.

Adnan Nasser is a foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East politics and relations

Follow him on Twitter: @Adnansoutlook29

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area.

He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris