What the Turkey-Syria rapprochement might mean for Syria's Kurds

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9 min read
09 July, 2024

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have both commented positively about potential normalisation between their countries.

However, any reconciliation will undoubtedly have wide-ranging ramifications for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main US ally against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and affiliated civilian Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) that currently control about one-third of Syria.


In late June, Assad told Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, that Syria is open to all initiatives related to relations with Turkey, provided its sovereignty is respected. Shortly after, Erdogan responded positively to a question on the matter, stating, “There is no reason why relations should not be reestablished”.

Iraq, which previously laid the groundwork for the successful 2023 deal restoring diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is helping mediate the process with Iran’s backing. Russia also supports rapprochement.

Assad previously declined Erdogan’s outreach for restoring relations, insisting that Turkey must first withdraw all its military forces from the country and cease supporting armed groups before any talks, a nonstarter for Ankara.

“Turkey’s withdrawal from Syria would require significant commitment and concessions by both Ankara and Damascus,” Suleyman Ozeren, a lecturer at the American University and senior fellow at the Orion Policy Institute, told The New Arab.

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“Ankara has invested substantial resources in military activism and proxy warfare in Syria, supporting several armed groups under the Syrian National Army and controlling strategic territory in Syria,” he said.

Mohammed Salih, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also noted that the rapprochement had been in the works for years, but Assad was unwilling to proceed because he didn’t want to “strengthen Erdogan’s hand” domestically.

“But now the regional conditions, particularly the threat of the Gaza conflict extending to a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, appears to motivate both sides to want to resolve their issues,” Salih told TNA.

“Assad is particularly motivated by this as a large-scale Israeli attack on Hezbollah will threaten to weaken his position as well, given his deep entanglements with both Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran,” Salih said.

“Russia and Iran would certainly be in favour of a resetting of relations between Damascus and Ankara.”

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Amidst this latest talk of normalisation, violent clashes erupted in northern border regions of Syria controlled by Turkey - al-Bab, Afrin, al-Rai, and Azaz - between armed demonstrators and Turkish troops, killing eight.

Ankara has long used various anti-Assad opposition militias grouped under the banner of the self-styled Syrian National Army (SNA) as proxies against the SDF, capturing territories in northern Syria in past operations in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Locals in these areas are fearful of their fate if Turkey mends ties with Assad.

“Any attempt to dismantle and decommission the SNA will face serious challenges because such a move would also involve recognising Damascus as the sole legitimate government in Syria,” Ozeren said.

“The SNA and other proxy groups have three options: They could follow the orders and be decommissioned, fight to preserve their positions or be moved to Turkey by Ankara. All three options have risks.”

But Ankara’s opposition allies in Syria aren’t the only ones worried. The SDF knows it will find itself in an extremely precarious position if Erdogan and Assad restore relations. While Turkey is not likely in any rush to return the regions it currently controls together with the SNA to Assad, it supports Damascus’s reabsorption of the AANES-administrated territories and the disarmament and dismantlement of the SDF. Ankara recently denounced the AANES’s plans to hold municipal elections.

“Syria’s normalisation with Turkey would be challenging and gradual if it were to take place,” Salih said. “There are several major issues, such as the fate of the SDF and the areas it controls, which Turkey wants to be retaken by Assad,” he added.

“There is also the question of Syrian opposition and millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the Turkish military presence in northern and northwestern Syria, which are all intertwined.”

There are still over three million Syrian refugees in Turkey who fled their country's bloody civil war. [Getty]

Refugee resettlement will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging issues Ankara and Damascus will need to negotiate. There are still over three million Syrian refugees in Turkey who fled their country’s bloody civil war, which began with the uprising against Assad in 2011 and has since left an estimated 500,000 people dead in its wake.

In 2019, Erdogan proposed resettling at least one million refugees currently in Turkey in northeastern Syrian territory Ankara and the SNA seized from the SDF. That plan hasn’t materialised. In 2023, the SDF expressed its readiness to resettle Syrian refugees in areas under its control and governance.

“The 2019 refugee resettlement plan was Ankara’s idea and is problematic for Assad since the plan envisioned a ‘safe zone,’ which is in its nature a denial of Syria’s sovereignty according to the current position Damascus declared,” Ozeren said.

“More importantly, for Assad, dispersing the Syrian refugees would be a strategically sound option since Erdogan’s plan would reinforce autonomous regions in Syria,” he added. “There are more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the safe zone is not entirely ‘safe’.”

Resettling refugees in government-controlled areas would also prove challenging.

“It’s unclear if Assad will take back the refugees or if they actually would trust Assad and go back to Syria in the event of a deal between Ankara and Damascus,” Salih said. “Syrian opposition groups would also likely not accept such a deal, as we saw in recent days, and might want to put up a fight against Assad before putting down their weapons or joining such a deal,” he added.

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“Ankara might very well try to negotiate an amnesty for them with Assad. But these groups’ ranks are filled by civilians who picked up arms following the 2011 uprising. They would not trust to be pardoned by Assad in any meaningful way or expect him to share some local power with them, particularly not at this stage of the conflict.”

Ceng Sagnic, chief of analysis of the geopolitical consultancy firm TAM-C Solutions, pointed out that the rapprochement is currently “contingent” on whether Assad will ultimately agree to help resettle refugees in return for a complete Turkish withdrawal.

“This is a tricky game for each side: Ankara can easily lose its leverage if the projected voluntary return of Syrian refugees does not ensue following a partial or complete withdrawal,” Sagnic told TNA.

“Similarly, the Assad regime could end up with a significant number of anti-regime and potentially Islamist opposition members that it has struggled hard to dispose of and expel unless a deal with Turkey is designed creatively to address the needs of both sides.”

This highlights the need for a phased withdrawal of Turkish troops and a gradual and potentially partial acceptance of the return of Syrian refugees, according to the analyst.

Given these seemingly insurmountable challenges, the rapprochement effort could become “the most fragile the region has seen in recent history”.

“In short, I anticipate Ankara to refrain from direct, open talks with Syria before Assad amends his previous precondition for talks, as the military presence Turkey has in northwest Syria is its only diplomatic card against Damascus at the moment,” Sagnic said.

On the other hand, the continued Syrian refugee issue in Turkey has become a focus of political debate that Erdogan can ill-afford to ignore, something which gives Damascus a “significant advantage” over the incumbent government in Ankara.

"The Turkey-Syria rapprochement effort could become the most fragile the region has seen in recent history"


As for the SDF, while Turkey would support Damascus retaking the northeast from the Kurdish-led forces, that doesn’t necessarily mean it would collaborate with the Syrian military.

“Any scenario involving Turkish and Syrian forces coordinating against the SDF is a distant one, if not a non-starter today,” Ozeren said.

“The ball is in Ankara’s court, and Assad would use his advantage to force Ankara to accept full withdrawal before committing to such coordination,” he added. “Also, the United States is another critical actor that needs to be convinced unless the Biden administration or – maybe - the Trump administration decides to withdraw from Syria.”

Salih doesn’t think a deal between Erdogan and Assad would “necessarily lead” to the SDF ceding territory to Damascus so long as the US retains its small but crucial troop presence, estimated to number approximately 900, in the northeast.

“However, a collaboration between Turkey and Assad to undermine the SDF would likely be possible in various ways,” he said. “In such a scenario, Ankara’s ongoing targeting of civilian infrastructure and SDF operatives would certainly play into Assad’s hand and constitute leverage for him.”

Sagnic also argued that SDF control over northeastern Syria remains “solely dependent” on American policy toward the country.

“However, it is impossible to deny that a potential boost of confidence for the Assad regime, whether through expelling Turkish troops or dragging Erdogan to the negotiation table, will strengthen Damascus on all fronts, including against the SDF,” he said.

And while any Syrian takeover of the northeast remains contingent on a US withdrawal and a green light from Russia, Sagnic argued that if Damascus “wins the war against Ankara,” that would mark the defeat of the Syrian uprising. In turn, that would also make the SDF “the final target” for Assad on his quest to reconquer the entire country.

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“Turkey may demand coordinated military action against the SDF from Syria in negotiations with the Assad regime, but it is too early to contemplate that Turkey would agree to lose its fait accompli in operations against the SDF,” Sagnic said. “Turkey’s established upper hand is solely contingent on Washington’s policy on the SDF, so why bother bringing another actor into the picture?”

Russia has long advocated for Turkey and Syria to cooperate through the framework of the 1998 Adana Agreement. That agreement mandated the expulsion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, commonly known by its Kurdish PKK acronym, from Syria, which hitherto hosted the group and its leader. The agreement also gave Turkey the right to take action against PKK fighters up to five kilometres into Syrian territory under certain circumstances.

Turkey has long maintained that the SDF - particularly the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that make up that fighting force’s central component - is indistinguishable from the PKK. However, just how applicable that 1998 agreement is under the present circumstances 26 years later is questionable.

“As for the Adana Agreement, Ankara and Damascus would need a new draft since the political, social, and demographic terrain in Syria has changed so dramatically that such an agreement could be named the Moscow or Astana Agreement,” Ozeren said. “The situation in Syria is no longer only about Ankara’s concerns regarding the PKK,” he added.

“Syria also claims that Ankara supports groups that Damascus deems as terrorists. So, any potential agreement would require a guarantor government - namely Russia - who would play a critical role in mediating and overseeing the implementation.”

Salih argues that the SDF’s “best bet” is reaching a deal with Assad over “some local autonomy formula” that permits its forces to operate as local security forces “within the broader framework” of Syria’s government forces.

“This will not be achievable without Washington exerting some serious leverage,” he said. “It has not done so up to now, and we’ll have to see if it will do so, particularly after the US presidential elections.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon