Prospects and pitfalls of a Turkish withdrawal from northern Syria
Syria has conditioned the withdrawal of the Turkish military from its territory as a prerequisite for any normalisation in relations between the two countries.
However, as analysts note, a full Turkish withdrawal in the near future is unlikely for a number of reasons, and an eventual withdrawal will likely prove immensely complicated.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to renormalise relations with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad for the first time since 2011.
Turkey severed ties that year when Assad violently crushed a popular revolt against his rule, sparking a violent civil war that has lasted over a decade and left an estimated 500,000 people dead in its wake.
"Syria has conditioned the withdrawal of the Turkish military from its territory as a prerequisite for any normalisation in relations between the two countries"
Turkey took in millions of Syrian refugees fleeing that vicious conflict. In recent years, however, hostility towards this large refugee population inside Turkey has grown as the economic situation worsened.
Erdogan, who is running for re-election this year, hopes that normalising ties with Assad could facilitate the resettlement of as many as three million refugees in northern Syria.
But Damascus says Ankara must withdraw all its military forces from Syria first.
In a series of military operations launched in 2016-19, Turkey invaded and occupied three separate parts of northern Syria with the help of Syrian opposition fighters it trained and used as proxies.
Most of these areas were previously controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) Turkey has fought for decades.
Ankara also has troops in Syria's north-western Idlib province, deployed under the tripartite Astana agreement with Iran and Russia. Large swathes of that province remain outside of Assad's control and are ruled over by the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) Islamist group.
It's also home to millions of displaced, who could flee over the border into Turkey if there is another ferocious Russian-backed Syrian offensive.
There is also the question of what happens to the thousands of armed proxy militiamen Turkey uses in these areas after an eventual withdrawal.
"A partial Turkish drawdown of forces is possible, but a full withdrawal is less likely," Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told The New Arab.
"Turkey wants to retain a buffer zone along the border," she said. "Syria and Turkey are negotiating over what must happen in order for their ties to normalise, so a limited drawdown would go far toward convincing Syria of Turkey's willingness to negotiate."
Hawthorne anticipates that even a partial Turkish withdrawal from Idlib would increase the prospect of Syrian and Russian military offensives in the area, leaving Syrian opposition fighters no choice other than to reconcile with Assad or fight.
Even though Turkey has trained many of these fighters and used them in past operations, it may not be willing to give them asylum after a withdrawal.
"Because of the Turkish public's low appetite for accepting more refugees, as well as Ankara's fear of welcoming any jihadist terrorists onto its soil, Turkey is not likely to accept many asylum seekers from the group," Hawthorne said. "However, if conflict erupts in Idlib province, Turkey could accept families of militants in the province."
"Erdogan, who is running for re-election this year, hopes that normalising ties with Assad could facilitate the resettlement of as many as three million refugees in northern Syria"
She concluded by predicting that a gradual negotiated reorganisation of northern Syria "is more likely than a rapid Turkish withdrawal that suddenly opens up Idlib to Russian and Syrian military overtures".
Ankara and Damascus "will try to begin with step-by-step diplomacy to test the waters and each other's ability and willingness to deliver," Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, predicts.
"The Sunni Arab Islamists, such at HTS, will be very difficult for the regime to reconcile with or to integrate into its own forces, as has been done with some of the militias of the Deraa region, for example," Landis told The New Arab.
"The regime will try to offer reconciliation to those militiamen who come forward, as it has done elsewhere in Syria," he said. "Many of the most determined fighters, who will fear for their lives, even were they to throw themselves on the mercy of the Syrian state, will ask for asylum in Turkey and elsewhere."
Landis also anticipates that Turkey will likely ask other countries that previously supported and paid for the militiamen in Syria to take in the leaders and members who cannot reconcile with the Syrian government. That would include the United States, which "did so much to legitimise and support the rebellion against Assad", Landis notes.
"I imagine that Western countries will refuse to accept their fair share of the 'freedom fighters'," he said. "The CIA may turn to the Biden administration to take some of the Free Syrian Army fighters that it trained and armed, but the United States is unlikely to accept many, if any at all. Turkey may predicate any deal on Western countries accepting their fair share."
In a worst-case scenario, Turkey may ultimately be forced to abandon fighters who refuse any reconciliation with Assad, "particularly if the 'Friends of Syria' countries that did so much to support the insurgency set a bad example by refusing to take any in themselves," Landis said.
"We shouldn't forget that it was President Obama who pressured Turkey to lead in supporting the Syria opposition, claiming that the United States would 'lead from behind'," he added.
Northeastern Syria is also complicated. Turkey captured a sizable portion of border territory east of the Euphrates River from the YPG in October 2019. Large parts of that region, known among the Kurds as Rojava, remain under the YPG's control. Turkey has repeatedly threatened to launch additional operations against the YPG.
The YPG is the main component of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting force, which is the main ally of the United States against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Turkey maintains that the group is inextricably tied to the PKK and constitutes a security threat.
The US maintains there is a distinction between the two groups, an issue the two countries have been at irrevocable loggerheads over since 2014.
"Turkey understands that, given its failure to topple the Assad regime, it must reconcile with Assad," Landis said. "Turkey must get the Syrian Arab Army and Syrian state institutions to protect Turkey's southern border from incursions by the YPG and pro-PKK Kurdish fighters."
"Turkey will unlikely withdraw its forces from Syria so long as the YPG presence remains and so long as the US 'underwrites' the northeastern statelet"
He pointed out that Ankara and Damascus want to see the United States withdraw its small troop presence in northeast Syria.
"Erdogan's biggest concern is that the United States is not only arming the YPG but also legitimising it," Landis said. "This undermines Turkish security and its effort to delegitimise Kurdish parties that seek Kurdish self-determination or a wide measure of autonomy. Assad also fears Rojava."
Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, also doubts that Turkey will withdraw its forces from Syria so long as the YPG presence remains and so long as the US "underwrites" the northeastern statelet.
"If the US was to withdraw from Syria, the PKK polity would collapse and the PKK would be reabsorbed by the Assad/Iran regime system, which would eliminate the main danger as Turkey sees it," he told The New Arab. "Ankara dealt with the PKK when it was a Soviet and Damascus proxy during the worst years of the war inside Turkey; it can deal with that situation again," he said.
"How quickly Turkey would withdraw from Syria following a US exit and the collapse of the PKK statelet is obviously very uncertain, but the contours of how it would be done can be guessed," he added.
While some leaders of the Turkish proxies, which collectively refer to themselves as the Syrian National Army (SNA), and other Turkish agents in Syria could be granted asylum in Turkey, the bulk of them will be left behind and likely "repurposed by the regime coalition in the way the rebels abandoned by Israel and Jordan in the south became reconciled", Orton estimates.
"The complication is HTS, which cannot surrender in the way the SNA can, but once the regime coalition starts annexing SNA factions, it will reduce the size of the HTS problem for the regime coalition," Orton said.
"Judging by the way the Idlib offensive was going in early 2020 before the Russians killed the Turkish soldiers and triggered the drone war - and even then, the settlement reached was very advantageous to the regime coalition - the regime coalition would not have too much trouble with HTS," he added.
"The civilian casualties from such an operation could be disastrous, but that is hardly a concern for the regime coalition,” he concluded. “And Turkey will likely seal its borders."
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon