After the Jordanian King Abdullah II received his first phone call from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in over ten years, the Turks wondered if their country would come next. The word is that Saudi Arabia is having unofficial talks with the Assad regime in tandem with the accelerating steps to mend Ankara’s fences with Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Riyadh. Yet if Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved to reconcile with Syria’s ruling Baath Party, that would be the most earthshaking U-Turn in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy in over decade.
“Erdogan will do anything to stay in power,” said an opposition Turkish politician who originally opposed the Turkish drive to overthrow Assad. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Turkish NTV station that a “political meeting” with Damascus was out of the question. Critics dismissed this as a smoke screen. After all, it is an open secret that Erdogan’s trusty Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan, who oversees Ankara’s relations with Syrian opposition groups in Turkey and militias in Syria, has been engaged in backchannel talks with the head of Syrian National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk. It was widely reported in fact that the two were to meet in Baghdad at the end of September, although the meeting ended up being postponed.
Erdogan must certainly be aware of the shrinking popularity of his party against the backdrop of the country’s economic dire straits. People in Turkey secretly blame him for causing the problem with Syria to begin with. He is the one who sheltered the Syrian rebels including untold numbers of jihadists, they say. Such anger and frustration has been reflected in the polls.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is aware of that public sentiment. He has pledged that, if elected president, he would return the Syrian refugees to their homes within two years of taking office. Recent opinion polls found that large numbers of Turks are fed up with their country’s involvement in Syria; they believe that sitting with Assad is the key to solving the refugee problem. Economic pressures, which are part of the blowback from Erdogan’s foreign policies, are reflected in mounting degrees of xenophobia and violence directed against Syrian refugees as well as minority communities in Turkey.
Given the general domestic climate, it comes as little surprise that the government has started touting a set of “new” policies which have led some observers to believe that Erdogan is truly on the verge of a major shift on the Syrian question. Or, perhaps more accurately, he is looking for a way to stage a graceful exit. He has frequently called for US forces to leave Syria. But, in reality, he wants them to remain as a counterweight to the Russians there. If he railed against the US and its presence in Syria, this was merely his way of “venting his anger at Joe Biden for not having given Erdogan a photo-op on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York last month.” Unlike Trump, who gave Erdogan the green light to invade northeast Syria, Biden has made it clear that Erdogan should not expect any gifts from him, and that the US will keep about 800 special forces in northeast Syria for the rest of his term, if need be. To make Erdogan really see red, Biden called the Turkish military operations in northeast Syria a threat to US interests and, in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he formally extended Executive Order 13894, which is intended to protect the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main ally on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. In the letter, Biden did not mince his words:
“The situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the actions by the government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians and further threatens to undermine the peace, security and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Ilham Ahmed, the chairperson of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the YPG, welcomed what she described as a “clear” commitment to the Kurds, in contrast to the lack of clarity under Trump.
Given this situation, “Turkey’s best bet to achieve its goal of destroying the Syrian Kurds’ self-administration would be to secure a deal with the [Syrian] regime,” writes Amberin Zaman for Al Monitor. “Turkey would allow Assad to retake the rebel-held province of Idlib and back his claims that the country is safe for the return of refugees. This, in turn, would persuade the international community to release funds for Syria’s reconstruction. The UN would be at hand to oversee it all.”
Zaman adds that this would suit Assad “since the Kurds, under US protection, have control over the country’s major oil fields, dams and agricultural land, and pose a greater threat to his authority than he is willing to admit.” At the same time, a deal with Damascus would give Turkey “unfettered freedom to go after Kurdistan Workers Party targets in Syria much as it did in the wake of the 1998 Adana Accords signed between Turkey and Assad’s father, Hafez, in the wake of Turkish threats to invade Syria.”
Whatever the case, Zaman believes that if the Erdogan regime does do an about-face on his Syria policy, the motive is less likely to be the Syrian refugees than his “paranoia” over Kurdish gains in Syria under US protection, which has prompted three major Turkish military incursions into northern Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a policy analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, is among those who believe it is inevitable for Ankara to reach out to Damascus, but “perhaps not as fast as Ankara has been going with Egypt and the UAE.” As he told Al Monitor, “what would propel Turkey is if Damascus, along with Moscow, could guarantee that the Kurdish influence in northern Syria would not grow further and would fall under the Syrian government’s control.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly