After patching up relations with most of his key regional rivals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is desperately searching for a fresh start with Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad whom he had earlier castigated as a “terrorist who is no longer a politician.”
If it happens, the rapprochement will be a remarkable turn of events for Syria, which is in the midst of an ongoing Civil War and foreign involvement. It will be another sign that the firebrand Turkish leader is seeking to clear up the mess he has created in his decade-long attempts to play a leadership role in the Middle East amid foreign policy debacles abroad and a deepening financial and economic crisis at home.
“Political dialogue and diplomacy cannot be cut off between states,” Erdogan recently told reporters, referring to Turkey’s relations with the Syrian regime. “We must take advanced steps with Syria through which we can frustrate many schemes in the region.”
Erdogan added that political or diplomatic dialogue could not be abandoned between countries, and that such dialogue can and should take place at any time. His remarks came at a time when Turkish official statements have been reiterating the possibility of restoring relations with the Al-Assad regime.
Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that he had recently held talks with his Syrian counterpart, saying that he had had a brief chat with the Syrian foreign minister on the sidelines of a meeting.
Cavusoglu said he had told the top Syrian diplomat that Turkey believes there will be peace between the Al-Assad regime and the opposition in Syria. He said that Turkey would be ready to help in such circumstances.
Turkey severed diplomatic ties with Syria after the 2011 uprising against the Al-Assad regime, when Erdogan tried to exploit the turmoil in several Middle Eastern countries in order to present his hybrid regime, touted as combining Islamism and secularism, as a role model for others in the region as well as to serve Turkey’s geopolitical and economic interests.
Turkey has until recently remained a staunch supporter of Al-Assad’s opponents. It has vehemently supported Syrian dissidents using Turkey as a platform for their anti-regime activities. Ankara also gradually increased its involvement and began training and supplying the dissidents who set up the opposition Free Syrian Army that controls pockets of northern Syria.
Turkey’s military operations have resulted in its occupation of large chunks of territory in northern Syria since August 2016. Ankara has also deepened its military role in the enclave, which it has been using as a base from which to fight Kurdish forces that it accuses of being allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
While Erdogan’s sea change in foreign relations is being closely watched in the region, multiple questions are being raised about the reasons behind Erdogan’s sudden decision to reset Turkey’s relations with the Al-Assad regime.
Analysts believe that Erdogan’s main goal in the rapprochement with Damascus is to dismantle the self-ruled Kurdish entity in northern Syria, which he accuses of hosting supporters of the PKK who are waging a guerrilla war against Ankara in a bid for autonomy.
Another factor could be the nearly four million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey and been given temporary protection living there. These have now turned into political pawns amid the rising popular apprehension in Turkey caused by the country’s economic crisis.
Erdogan faces reelection next year and is languishing in the polls, with many observers citing his Syrian policy as one reason behind the voters’ dissatisfaction. As the country’s economic problems mount, Turkey’s Syrian refugees are becoming Erdogan’s biggest election liability and under mounting public pressure he wants to send millions of them back.
In order to achieve these goals, Erdogan has raised the spectre of a large-scale Turkish military campaign in northern Syria to create a 30-km (19-mile) safe zone along the border. While targeting the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG), which hold a lot of land in the area, the zone could serve to encourage the return of the Syrian refugees.
However, Erdogan’s conciliatory gesture has been rejected by supporters of the Syrian opposition, who consider the move to be a sell-out. While Syrians living in Turkish-controlled of Syria have responded with mass protests, Syrian refugees inside Turkey are worried about Erdogan’s plans to relocate them to “safe areas” in Syria.
The move has also come under fire from the main Turkish opposition parties, which have accused Erdogan of “making a detour” under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Does Al-Assad have the will to make peace with his people,” asked former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, also the leader of the opposition Future Party.
The US, which keeps huge contingents of troops in several bases in Syria to “support and advise” the Syrian forces in areas under YPG control, is also opposed to the Turkish moves. Officially, the US troops are there to counter the Islamic State (IS) terror group, but they often come into conflict with other forces, including militias aligned with Iran.
But most importantly, Washington, which still refuses to rehabilitate the Moscow-backed Al-Assad regime, wants to keep the US troop presence in Syria in order to provide a counterweight to Russia. The latter has deepened its military ties with the regime and begun challenging US strategic interests in the Middle East.
Yet, while Erdogan’s rapprochement with old regional foes such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been successful, his attempts to reach out to Al-Assad might be difficult if not impossible.
The normalisation with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi was driven by realpolitik and allowed the two capitals to maintain “practical” relations with Ankara without being committed to a zero-sum result.
But reconciliation with Al-Assad is a completely different matter because it would entail territorial and nationalist considerations that would mean a strategic retrenchment. The very nature of the conflict between Syria and Turkey makes a quick deal impossible.
Recent reports about the failure of Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk to make progress on reaching common ground for resetting their countries’ relationship indicate the difficulties in negotiating an end to their disputes.
High-level talks between the two men in Moscow last month stalled over Syrian demands that Turkey withdraw its troops from the strip it occupies in northern Syria without preconditions and halt its support to anti-regime groups. At the same time, Ankara pressed for the safe zone it wants to establish on the border and the repatriation of the Syrian refugees.
The unravelling of the face-to-face talks has shone a harsh spotlight on the contradictions in the arrangements being pushed by Turkey and Syria and the overriding goals of other stakeholders in Syria, in particular Iran, Russia, and the US.
Comments by Erdogan on Friday that he will be going ahead with a planned military incursion into northern Syria despite opposition from Damascus signal that the prospect of a breakthrough remains dim as a result of divergences over any concessions that Al-Assad can give to Erdogan.
Erdogan seems determined to establish a northern Syrian buffer zone in order to achieve his goals of using it to take Turkey’s longstanding fight against the PKK inside Syria and using the Turkish troop presence to effectively bloc the Kurds from setting up an independent Kurdish statelet, a formula he has managed to impose on northern Iraq.
Erdogan’s third objective is to leave the Al-Assad regime enmeshed in dealing with millions of Syrian refugees repatriated from Turkey and the huge numbers of armed groups, some of them friendly to Turkey, which are currently operating in the Turkish-protected pocket in northern Syria.
While Erdogan is expected to continue to twist what is actually happening in Syria, as he did in order to reach his frosty detente with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, either to court votes ahead of next year’s election or to fit the narrative he has always used about Turkey’s security, the rhetoric he is spouting is dangerous.
“We are aware of the hypocrisy of those who launch operations whenever they want and point their fingers at us,” Erdogan said. “We will continue these operations according to our own plans and based on our country’s security priorities. As we always say, we may come suddenly in the night,” he declared.
That makes the euphoria about the Syria rapprochement another chapter in Erdogan’s bad show.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.