Mutual benefits

Karam Said, Friday 23 Sep 2022

Developments in Turkish-Syrian relations?

Bashar, Erdogan


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said he would have liked to meet President Bashar Al-Assad had the Syrian leader attended a summit being held in Uzbekistan, according to a report in Turkey’s pro-government Hürriyet newspaper on Friday. News reports the previous day revealed that in recent weeks the Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakkan Fidan had held several meetings with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Al-Mulouk, the last taking place at the end of August. But developments in this direction date even further back.

At the beginning of August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that he had met briefly with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Al-Miqdad on the sidelines of the conference of the Non-Aligned Nations Movement in Belgrade. He said they discussed ways to strengthen the Turkish role in the reconciliation between Damascus and the Syrian opposition. Since February, at least, there have been intermittent reports of meetings between Turkish and Syrian security and intelligence officials. Clearly the momentum has picked up, for on 19 August 2022, Erdogan indicated that dialogue with Syria was possible. He hoped for peace and diplomatic communications with the “Syrian regime”, he said.

The possibility of concluding peace and restoring diplomatic relations with Syria has resonated in many political quarters, judging from the many statements on the importance of rapprochement with Damascus. “The constructive and realistic remarks of our foreign minister on Syria and the need to promote peace between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime offer a powerful incentive to the search for a lasting solution,” said the leader of the National Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli in a speech to the MHP parliamentary bloc. “Talks between Turkey and Syria should be elevated to the level of political dialogue. The removal of terrorist organisations is likely to be one of the issues on the agenda.” The steps Turkey was taking in this regard would be “precise and carefully studied.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition party, the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), welcomed the government’s new direction. He and other CHP officials have long stressed the need for rapprochement with Syria and peace with the Assad regime.

The Syrian regime has indicated that it welcomes the prospect of the restoration of relations with Ankara. During a visit to Moscow in February, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad said that his government was ready to normalise relations with Turkey. “Syria and Turkey are neighbours. We’re bound by a long history and 500 years of [Ottoman] occupation which is enough for us to understand each other,” he said. However, he also stressed the need for Turkey to withdraw from Syrian territory and cease its military interventions in northern Syria.

Russia, the Syrian regime’s main backer, has been pressing both sides to communicate more closely and not just at the security-intelligence levels. The Turkish president has said that, on the eve of the Sochi summit in August, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had asked him to reduce the areas of tension between Ankara and Damascus. With the Ukrainian crisis foremost in mind at present, Moscow is keener than ever to calm and secure the Syrian front.

Regional stakeholders in Syria have also been encouraging Turkey to mend fences with Damascus. Foremost among these is Iran whose Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, on 22 August: “We hope to see relations restored between Ankara and Damascus as this will serve the welfare of both peoples and the stability of the region… It will be in Turkey’s interest to revise its views on the Syrian question.”

Both Turkey and Syria have many reasons to compel them to grapple with some contentious issues and overcome differences. For Turkey, rapprochement and normalisation with Damascus could accomplish a number of objectives. The foremost would be for the Syrian regime to assume the task of countering Syrian Kurdish forces in the north and ending any Kurdish separatist project along Turkey’s southern border. Turkish operations to this end have certain limitations, not least the continued US support for the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Secondly, better relations with Syria would create a more favourable environment for solving the problem of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The refugee question has been a source of mounting pressures on the Turkish regime especially in view of approaching elections next year, in which the refugees will be a hot-button issue. The opposition parties have already begun to capitalise on the adverse repercussions of the government’s open-door policy towards Syrian refugees, now seen by large segments of the public as a cause of deteriorating living standards, rising unemployment and other problems. Starting a dialogue with the Assad regime would neutralise the refugee card as an opposition campaign stratagem. In fact, some observers suspect that the Turkish administration’s acknowledgements of communications with that regime at various levels are little more than an electoral ploy.

Thirdly, Ankara understands that improving relations with the Syrian regime will advance its foreign policy shift towards regional Arab powers, most notably Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, that have been campaigning to bring Damascus back into the Arab order. The shift is in part informed by Ankara’s awareness of the risks involved in another military incursion into northern Syria. In the Tehran summit between Iran, Russia and Turkey in July, the Iranian and Russian leaders explicitly cautioned Erdogan against launching another military operation in Syria. Now it appears that Turkey and Iran are engaged in an escalating intelligence war, even though they have no desire to clash over northern Syria.

Damascus, for its part, has much to gain from improved relations with Ankara. Above all, it would help it to recover from its regional vulnerability, end its isolation and revive commercial and trade relations. Turkey, in short, could become a fresh lung to enable the Syrian economy to breathe again and reverse the deterioration in living standards. In addition, coordinating political positions with Ankara could help Damascus resolve major issues with the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition.

Despite the many regional and international circumstances that encourage a Turkish-Syrian thaw, there remain some considerable obstacles. Among those is Ankara’s insistence on including the militant Syrian opposition in the political process and amending the Adana agreement so as to allow Turkey to intervene militarily up to a depth of 35 km into northern Syria in order to fight Syrian Kurdish forces. As the agreement currently stands, the maximum depth is five km. Such demands do not sit well with Damascus which insists Turkey must withdraw its forces from northern Syria and end its support for the regime’s adversaries.

   *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Search Keywords:
Short link: