Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s interest in a rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the latest chapter in his delicate domestic and regional balancing act, and it has his friends and enemies alike scrambling to brace themselves for how this development might impact them. The rapprochement, if it succeeds, would further complicate the domestic and regional dynamics in northern Syria without securing any clear advantage for Erdoğan beyond, perhaps, in the upcoming Turkish elections. It is also doubtful that the Assad regime’s mid- to long-term interests align with Turkey’s, and therefore any thaw in relations is bound to be limited in scope and perhaps short-lived. In the meantime, Syrian refugees in Turkey are concerned about forced repatriation, which may result from an agreement between Erdoğan and Assad. And the Kurds of northern Syria might be even more directly affected, losing their autonomy and their hopes for permanent secession.
Refugees at Risk
Turkey is host to 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees who have thus far refused to go back to even relatively calm areas of their home country, fearing retribution and repression from the Assad regime. This is in addition to many others who are unregistered or pass through on business or on their way elsewhere. Syrian refugees do not pose the same level of economic burden in Turkey as they do in Lebanon, where even with their smaller numbers (roughly 800,000 are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) they pose a greater challenge to the collapsing Lebanese economy. Nevertheless, Turkish politicians vying for electoral victories use the refugee issue to appeal to various segments of the population, stoking fears of competition for jobs and of social and political upheaval in the process. Such fears may be mostly unfounded, and are certainly fueled and exploited by politicians, and mainly by Erdoğan’s political opposition. But opinion polls show that a majority of Turks are unhappy about the fact that Turkey has been bearing the brunt of the Syrians’ exodus since 2015, with a whopping 82 percent of respondents saying that they have nothing in common culturally with Syrians.
Opinion polls show that a majority of Turks are unhappy about the fact that Turkey has been bearing the brunt of the Syrians’ exodus since 2015, with a whopping 82 percent of respondents saying that they have nothing in common culturally with Syrians.
From the refugees’ perspective, their fear is justified, given their experience during the war. MedGlobal, an NGO that brings medical equipment and staff to hospitals and refugees on the Syrian side of the border, reports that the mood among Syrian refugees in Turkey is quite negative regarding the prospect of voluntary return—even with economic incentives—and is very dark regarding the possibility of forced repatriation, which might result from an agreement between Ankara and Damascus. A MedGlobal source has said that trauma and mental illness affect many refugees due to their experiences of repression and multiple forced displacements, and that these challenges are all the more acute among children, a fact that makes refugees’ fear of forced repatriation entirely understandable.
Syrian Kurds in Jeopardy
The Kurds of the northern provinces of Syria are likewise naturally alarmed at the prospect of an agreement between Ankara and Damascus, which may result in Assad approving a Turkish military operation against them. Having had a long-term “live and let live” arrangement with Damascus, the People’s Protection Units (PYG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are eager that this arrangement not be disrupted by a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. Perhaps less dangerous, but still stressful for the Kurds, would be the prospect of being pushed into an agreement with Damascus wherein Turkey compromises with Assad, allowing him to regain control of northern Syria (and therefore of the Kurds), rather than achieving Erdoğan’s long-desired option of a Turkish invasion. Syrian Kurds may eventually give up on their hopes of secession, but the prospect of their agreeing to return to direct rule by Damascus (still Assad’s long-term goal) remains, for the time being, unappealing to say the least. The Kurds may be caught between a rock and a hard place, but given doubts about US guarantees, they may have to choose between their best negotiated agreements with either Damascus or Ankara, or perhaps with both.
Syrian opponents of the Assad regime—the secular opposition led by the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), Islamist armed organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other armed allied factions operating out of Idlib—are all troubled by the possibility of any new agreement between Erdoğan and Assad. After all, in the immediate wake of the Syrian uprising of 2011, Erdoğan came out as publicly opposed to the Assad regime and intent on helping to bring about its demise. In the years since, Syria’s secular opposition has depended on logistical and financial support coming directly from Turkey, or from Gulf states via Turkey. Any reconciliation between Turkey and the Assad regime would leave the opposition in the lurch, unless they were somehow brought into the negotiations and ended up being part of a broader deal.
Any reconciliation between Turkey and the Assad regime would leave the opposition in the lurch, unless they were somehow brought into the negotiations and ended up being part of a broader deal.
Meanwhile, Syria’s armed Islamist factions, worried about losing covert Turkish military support, are struggling to extend their control over territory in northern Syria. HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani has condemned any reconciliation and is expected to keep fighting the Assad regime regardless of the outcome of rapprochement. Neither the secular nor the Islamist opposition is in a position to pressure Turkey into changing its mind. Nevertheless, Turkey’s relationship with the Syrian opposition is a card in its hand, one that keeps it alive in the struggle for Syria. The time has not yet arrived for Turkey to play this card, so it therefore prefers to keep matters as they stand. And in the meantime, in light of the opposition’s concerns, Turkey hosted an early January meeting with opposition leaders to allay their fears and promise its continued support.
What Is in It for Erdoğan?
Erdoğan, according to some of his Levantine critics, yearns for bygone days when the Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Levant and used northern Syria as both an agricultural resource center and a site to place Arab and other minorities fleeing persecution elsewhere in the region. Whatever his long-term desires, the Turkish president has certainly had his eyes set on northern Syria since the beginning of the war, and is troubled by the Kurdish community there, which, from his perspective, easily connects with Kurdish communities inside Turkey and in Iraq and therefore poses a constant security risk.
Given Turkey’s troubled relations with the United States over both the latter’s continued presence near its border and its support of the Kurds, Erdoğan is finding common cause with Assad; but the issue is a difficult one.
Given Turkey’s troubled relations with the United States over both the latter’s continued presence near its border and its support of the Kurds, Erdoğan is finding common cause with Assad; but the issue is a difficult one. The US is not willing, at least for the time being, to abandon the region completely and to leave its allies, the SDF, in the lurch. Erdoğan has also antagonized the US and his other fellow NATO allies with his coziness with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his willingness to buy sophisticated Russian weapons. He may not wish to push this to the breaking point by defying his western allies and attacking northern Syria. Ironically, Putin, who is already confronting the threat of NATO weapons in Ukraine and does not wish to further antagonize the United States, has not yet given his OK for another Turkish invasion in northern Syria.
What Is in It for Syria?
The two benefits the Assad regime would most want to draw from a rapprochement with Turkey would be a Turkish pullout from northern Syria to allow Syrian government forces to move back into the region, and a withdrawal from around Idlib to allow Russian and Syrian government forces to launch a major attack against the Islamist opposition that is holed up in the area. Assad has made clear that improved relations with Turkey must be based on an end to the Turkish military presence inside Syria and the cessation of Turkish support for the Syrian opposition—which the Assad regime labels “terrorists.”
The appearance of a return to a more normal relationship with Turkey looks like the best Assad can hope for from current talks. Assad and Erdoğan ultimately have clashing interests in northern Syria, each desiring a form of control that the other is bound to oppose.
A complete Turkish pullout from Syria looks like a bridge too far at the moment; but Assad still stands to win at least de facto recognition from Turkey for merely holding high level official contacts, even if the talks do not result in any change on the ground. The return, or even the appearance of a return to a more normal relationship with Turkey looks like the best Assad can hope for from current talks. Assad and Erdoğan ultimately have clashing interests in northern Syria, each desiring a form of control that the other is bound to oppose. Furthermore, there are several regional and international players with interests at stake—Russia, Iran, Israel, the United States, and Gulf Arab states—which further complicates matters.
The View from Washington
President Joe Biden’s policy on Syria is the same as that pursued by former President Barack Obama, minus such intensive involvement as was seen in former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Geneva talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which took place in 2016. It was clear during those talks that US leverage was minimal given Russia’s robust military intervention in 2015 and its strong backing of the Assad regime. The United States’ stated position at the time was to support a political transition in Syria that would allow the Syrian people to freely choose their leaders. It is clear today, especially with an even smaller US military role in the conflict, that the goal remains the same—as is evident in the joint statement of a group meeting between like-minded parties in Geneva in August 2022. A political transition, in 2016 as in 2023, remains wishful thinking given both the lack of consensus among the parties involved as to what such a transition should entail and the merely rhetorical support provided by the United States due to its apparent lack of desire to expend any diplomatic or military energy to try to make a transition happen.
US-Turkey relations, which are on shaky ground given American officials’ unhappiness over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, are further complicated by Erdoğan’s refusal so far to vote for Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO. The first disagreement led to the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, while tension over the second issue is casting doubt on the future of an F-16 sale. While any warming of Erdoğan’s relations with Assad would not endear him to Washington, it stands to reason that such a rapprochement would be the lesser of two evils when compared to a possible invasion of northern Syria while American troops are still on the ground. Erdoğan’s efforts to mediate rather than take sides in the Russia-Ukraine debacle—and specifically its efforts to secure grain shipments— have earned him some points with the US and NATO. But his rhetoric wavers from a balanced approach to a tone that is critical of the west, and that is at least partly responsible for a tilt toward support for Russia in Turkish public opinion polls.
With such a complex political map, a full resolution of the Syria conflict is well-nigh impossible in the near- and mid-term. Erdoğan’s diplomatic forays look like the balancing act of a skilled acrobat, keeping friends and foes alike at an equal distance but likely failing to achieve any major breakthrough that could please all his friends, reconcile him with his enemies, and end the Syrian war. More modest goals could, however, be achieved, and the Turkey-brokered Ukraine grain deal is one example. Reopening the M4 highway from the Syrian-Iraqi border through northern Syria to Aleppo and down to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast would, if secured, be a major accomplishment. And critical commercial interests would accrue to all parties concerned with such an opening.
The United Nations Security Council recently passed an extension to humanitarian access via only one border crossing along the Turkey-Syria border. Turkey has offered to open and operate other access points, but even this seemingly low-bar compromise continues to get stuck between those wishing to centralize relief work through Damascus and those supporting more cross-border access points. Adding humanitarian gates, which are essential for delivering aid to the roughly 15 million Syrians who need it, would greatly facilitate humanitarian assistance to poverty-stricken Syrians, internally displaced persons, and refugees. In addition to Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States, major smugglers and drug traffickers also have a stake in the outcome, making the issue—although admittedly marginal to the overall peace process—a Herculean task.
Efforts to change the last decade’s sour relations between Ankara and Damascus are only in their initial stages, and do not yet have any concrete results. Perhaps future internal, regional, and international developments will introduce new conditions that facilitate a limited rapprochement between Erdoğan and Assad. But said rapprochement is not likely to resolve major military and political issues. Importantly, however, it may have the potential to help improve the lives of millions of Syrians stranded on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.