Towards Turkish-Syrian rapprochement?

Karam Said, Tuesday 15 Aug 2023

While there are still obstacles preventing the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Syria, these could disappear in the medium term, writes Karam Said

Towards Turkish-Syrian rapprochement
Delegations led by Russian Defence Minister and Turkish Defence Minister amid talks in Moscow for raprochement between Syria and Turkey


The prospects of a Russian and Iranian-brokered restoration of relations between Turkey and Syria seemed increasingly remote after recent statements by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

In a televised interview on 9 August, he said that he would not meet with his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and stressed that “the goal of the Turkish president is to legitimise the presence of the Turkish occupation in Syria.”

Despite several rounds of military and foreign ministerial level meetings in the framework of the Astana Process in which Moscow and Tehran have tried to melt the ice between Turkey and Syria, and Russia’s continual prodding of the two sides to address their differences, these efforts have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough.

Some hopes had been pinned on the last meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana in June, but this only ended with a commitment to prepare a roadmap towards the resumption of relations between Ankara and Damascus, signalling that the two sides were still far apart in their views and priorities, especially in what they define as “terrorism.”

There are two sticking points. The first is that Turkey insists that the Syrian opposition must be included in the political process. The second is that Istanbul wants the Adana Agreement to be amended to increase the geographical depth to which Turkish military forces may intervene in Syria to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey designates as a terrorist group, from five to 35 km.

Syria is insisting on the full withdrawal of Turkish forces from the Syrian provinces that Turkey is occupying in north-western Syria with the assistance of Turkish-backed rebel forces.

Judging by the Turkish reactions so far, it is hard to imagine Turkey agreeing to withdraw militarily from Syria, at least not until it obtains internationally backed guarantees promising the end of the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Syria.

Turkey has undertaken three major military incursions into Syria since 2016 in order to fight the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara equates with the PKK in Turkey.

It believes that if it withdraws from Syria, the defeats it has inflicted on the SDF over the past eight years will go to waste. It also fears losing the economic interests it has established in the northern Syrian provinces. Turkish businesses have invested heavily there and have acquired major assets in Idlib and Afrin.

Damascus does not regard the predominantly Kurdish SDF and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that make up the backbone of the SDF as extensions of the PKK or terrorists, but rather as separatist entities that can ultimately be contained and absorbed back into the political and military structures of the Syrian state.

On the other hand, it regards Turkish-backed militias such as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and other militant Sunni Islamist formations as terrorist organisations that Turkey must stop backing and that need to be eradicated along with organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) group that Turkey also designates as a terrorist group.

Syria also wants to regain control over the strategic M4 highway connecting the Mediterranean coast with Aleppo and other areas in the northern provinces. It wants to reopen the border between the two countries, restore security, and revive trade.

Turkey would like Syria to do the work of suppressing the SDF and the Kurdish drive for autonomy in the north of the country. Despite the Turkish successes in that area, the SDF is still backed by the US, which has often acted as a break on Turkish military operations.

Officials in Ankara have said that they would offer political support to Damascus if it took on the SDF as part of its right to eliminate terrorism on its territory.

The normalisation of Turkish-Syrian relations could now move in one of two directions.

The first is to freeze the negotiations where they stand or to slow their pace until a new turn of events offers circumstances conducive to the resolution of outstanding differences. This may even suit Russia in the light of its preoccupation with developments surrounding Ukraine, especially given the impacts of Ukrainian drone strikes against targets inside Russia and the recent Wagner Group mutiny.

It may also suit Iran, which appears to support the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement but in fact fears that it may work against Iranian interests.

The second scenario is for the two countries to resume relations in the medium term. Both Ankara and Damascus have good reasons to improve relations, and the former is keen to see the return of Syrian refugees in Turkey to their homes.

In addition to the economic burden of the refugees on the Turkish economy, the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wants to defuse a hot button issue ahead of the 2024 municipal elections. Turkish opposition forces gained considerable ground against the AKP and Erdogan ahead of the general elections in May by coupling the refugee issue with the economic deterioration in the country.

Another factor that might lend itself to Syrian-Turkish normalisation in the medium term is Ankara’s need to improve relations with Moscow after the latter’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July. Moving closer towards restoring relations with Syria might be a way of winning back Moscow’s favour after Turkey’s agreeing to Sweden’s membership of NATO.

If Turkey makes a gesture in this direction, Damascus might respond to Russian pressures to meet Ankara halfway.

There are a number of reasons that might compel Damascus to move closer to its northern neighbour. The first is the so far limited payback from Syria’s return to the Arab fold, in part because of Damascus’ continued links with Tehran, and the second is the ongoing Western boycott and other pressures that have brought the Syrian economy to the brink of collapse.

It is still possible that conditions will become favourable to induce both sides to continue the talks, and this could bring the spirit of compromise necessary to form some preliminary understandings that could be built on as a roadmap towards a more comprehensive agreement.

While some formidable challenges continue to obstruct normalisation in the near term, common interests and constructive pragmatism could steer Ankara and Damascus towards choices that will enable them to overcome such hurdles in the medium term and re-establish full relations.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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