How Realistic Is an Erdoğan-Assad Rapprochement?

Despite Turkey’s frequent threats that it will soon undertake a new military ground offensive in northern Syria, no such operation has yet materialized. This holdup is largely due to Russia’s delay in greenlighting the operation, first demanding to see progress on Turkish-Syrian bilateral relations. Accordingly, the Turkish government is showing more eagerness to engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which would damage Syrian Kurdish gains. After exchanging a warm handshake during a one-on-one meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to his frustrated inner-party critics regarding Syria, saying, “Just as this business is now on track with Egypt, things may also get on track with Syria…There is no room for hard feelings in politics.”

Ankara’s attempts to reconcile with Damascus are ushering in a new phase in Turkey’s decade-long and ever-evolving policy toward Syria. Even though the Turkish government has long suspended its calls for regime change in Syria, Ankara-Damascus relations are still dominated by proxy warfare and deep mistrust. Thus, it is not realistic to expect the two sides to bury the hatchet anytime soon. Nonetheless, the Turkish president’s repeated calls to open bilateral channels signal a policy shift in Ankara’s calculations. Erdoğan, the master of Turkish foreign policy U-turns, is betting on a discourse of normalization with regional and other actors that may bring him gains in Turkey’s June 2023 presidential election. Erdoğan’s normalization rhetoric aims to satisfy the populist hope that Turkey will be able to repatriate the millions of Syrian refugees residing in the country, and thus portrays Erdoğan as a leader who may deliver real change.

Assad the Skeptic, Erdoğan the Opportunist

This new phase of Turkish policy is the natural outgrowth of previous strategic shifts. Since the beginning of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, Turkey has labeled Kurdish separatism as a main threat and has therefore dragged its proxy groups into a war with Syrian Kurds. After the Syrian regime retook the city of Aleppo, rebel factions had no choice but to rely on the Turkish government. Some factions have acted as direct proxies receiving funding from Turkey, while others have operated in the northwestern Idlib Governorate, where Ankara has provided more indirect support.

Turkey expects that it may receive collaboration from Damascus to hasten the withdrawal of American troops in northeastern Syria and to curb Kurdish autonomy. The Assad regime, however, remains suspicious about the Turkish government’s intentions. Without any concrete offer from Ankara, an Erdoğan-Assad meeting would only legitimize Turkey’s position in its enduring Turkish military occupation of northern Syria. This is why Damascus has made Turkey’s military retreat a precondition for a diplomatic revival. But Ankara is unlikely to accept this requirement. The Assad regime also understands that Erdoğan’s public relations campaign leading up to what will likely be a critical Turkish election has played a big role in his recent foreign policy decisions. Accordingly, Damascus aims to get something substantial from the Erdoğan government in return. If Turkey does not offer any concessions now, it may signal that Erdoğan is not serious about negotiating, which will give Damascus no reason to rush to contribute to an election victory for Erdoğan.

If Turkey does not offer any concessions now, it may signal that Erdoğan is not serious about negotiating, which will give Damascus no reason to rush to contribute to an election victory for Erdoğan.

The Assad regime’s skepticism and the Turkish government’s reluctance to offer concessions make Russia the key to resolving the deadlock. Such a role fits Russian President Vladimir Putin well, since he wants to preserve his position as the main arbiter on the Syrian scene. Most recently, Erdoğan announced that Ankara is coordinating with Moscow to prepare a trilateral meeting with Damascus. According to the plan, the three countries’ foreign and defense ministers would come together to discuss issues, followed by a meeting of the three countries’ presidents.

For Damascus, Turkey’s currently empowered position vis-a-vis Russia following the Ukraine war is a major problem. Ankara now has no incentive to withdraw its troops from territories it controls in Syria. In 2020, when Turkey stopped the Syrian Army’s advance into rebel territories in Idlib, Russia did not hesitate to kill Turkish soldiers with a swift bombardment. Today, however, Moscow faces extreme financial stress under the weight of international sanctions, and is finding Ankara a key partner in overcoming this blockade. Therefore, the Turkish government sees that it has the upper hand in negotiating with the Assad regime, which itself is extremely dependent on Russia. Moscow’s current push for Ankara-Damascus negotiations rather than escalating Turkey’s military advance reveals that Russia does not want a confrontation with Turkey over Syria.

Damascus will watch how Putin uses Idlib to pressure Turkey for concessions. Moscow has been weaponizing its United Nations Security Council vote regarding a crucial humanitarian aid corridor to Idlib. The Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria is a lifeline for millions of refugees in Idlib, and a humanitarian catastrophe is imminent if the UN mandate is not renewed before it expires in mid-January. Another refugee crisis is the last thing that Ankara needs. Pointing the finger at Syrian militia Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which has control over Idlib, Russia claims that “terrorists” benefit from the aid corridor, and instead proposes that all humanitarian aid be channeled through Damascus, which would then gain a tremendous advantage allowing it to exert pressure over the population of Idlib and seek their loyalty in return.

The only benefit appears to be preventing further territorial gains by the Turkish armed forces.

Being in a disadvantaged position, the Assad regime is otherwise skeptical about the value of developing bilateral relations with Ankara. The only benefit appears to be preventing further territorial gains by the Turkish armed forces. The trajectory of events in 2019 was most telling: Turkey’s cross-border offensive, code-named Operation Peace Spring, put the Kobane and Manbij city administrations—both run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—under an existential threat. Damascus accused Turkey and the SDF, respectively, of illegal occupation and separatism. Since it received no urgent aid from the Trump administration, the Kurdish-led SDF had no choice but to reach a deal with Damascus. As a result, the Syrian Army entered Kobane and Manbij, and Syrian and Russian forces began military patrols in areas along the border.

In the past few weeks, Turkey has again threatened to invade Kobane and Manbij. The November 2022 Taksim bombing in Istanbul, which left six dead and dozens wounded, has been highlighted by the Turkish government as a pretext for recent airstrikes and a potential ground operation. However, this is nothing new, since Turkish officials have constantly threatened invasions during the past few years. Putin now wants Erdoğan and Assad to develop a roadmap. If the normalization of diplomatic relations occurs under today’s circumstances, Turkey may freeze its military actions, in large part because Erdoğan could then readily claim victory on a critical issue: by shaking hands with Assad, the Turkish president may appear to gain recognition for Turkish-controlled Syrian territory for the foreseeable future. Turkey may then move to repatriate Syrian refugees by placing them in safety zones that are guaranteed by Turkey and Russia and run by Syrian opposition municipalities, thereby creating what would look like an autonomous zone within the Syrian Arab Republic.

Ankara has already taken steps to realize this so-called “voluntary” return by building tens of thousands of houses in northwestern Syria, planning to reach its goal of providing shelter there for one million refugees. According to the Turkish government, the residential communities it is building in Syria will have schools, hospitals, and shopping centers. However, a largely silent deportation by Turkish authorities is already underway. Human Rights Watch has documented mass deportations of Syrian refugees who have been forced to sign forms agreeing to their supposedly “voluntary” repatriation. Such deportations put European Union funding for Turkey at risk because Ankara is bound by international law to prevent the return of any person to a place where they may face the risk of persecution or ill-treatment.

Yet if Erdoğan’s plan to declare Turkish-controlled territories to be safe zones by negotiating with the Assad regime, such deportations or “voluntary” returns will be marked in legal documents as being directed toward safe areas. Only then can the Turkish government realize its goal of deporting one million refugees back to Syria. In addition, Turkish-proposed safe zones inside of Syria will also serve as buffer zones for Turkey against Kurdish movements. If the Assad regime wants to use Syrian Kurds against Ankara in the future, Turkey will likely use its amity with the Syrian opposition in response.

The Ankara-Damascus Consensus: Destroying Kurdish Hopes in Syria

The potential withdrawal of US troops from Syria is a common goal that may bind Ankara and Damascus together in the long term. An American withdrawal would likely cause the failure of Syrian Kurdish efforts to achieve statehood. Destroying Kurdish autonomy is a top strategic priority for Turkey, and would also be a desirable outcome for Damascus. Turkey is already exerting extreme efforts to make life unbearable in SDF-controlled zones, while planning for the day after US troops leave as part of what is essentially a long-term chess game. The latest Turkish airstrikes, for example, have inflicted severe damage on densely populated areas, including civilian deaths, and the destruction of critical infrastructure and oil wells. And the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe has been exacerbated by Turkey’s weaponization of water flow into the Syrian-held portion of the Euphrates River—a policy that has led to a rise in waterborne diseases, including cholera.

Damascus’ silence regarding Turkey’s airstrike campaign was telling. Head of the Syrian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission Pierre Marjane described the Turkish attacks as “a message to separatist Kurdish militia[s],” despite his acknowledgement that Syrian civilians and soldiers were also among the victims. Marjane added that not all Syrian Kurds “can be accused of treason, barring the separatist group armed by the United States,” by which he meant the People’s Protection Units. Turkish attacks actually serve Damascus since they push the Kurds to capitulate to the Assad regime.

If the US does indeed retreat from Syria at some point, one critical issue may still cause Ankara and Damascus to drift apart, namely the matter of what would happen to members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and their families who are detained in al-Hol detention camp, and who number at least 53,000. It is not clear if the Assad regime or Russia could successfully take over the management of the camp. And given that many of the IS fighters in these camps may be inclined to take revenge on Syrian Kurds, Turkey and its Syrian proxies might perceive them as potential ally in the chaotic region. Thus, even if Damascus cooperates with Ankara against the Kurds until a hoped-for American withdrawal, such cooperation would be extremely difficult to maintain under a post-US order in Syria.

Washington’s Reticence

The United States’ response to Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria was relatively soft, creating serious doubts among Syrian Kurds about the future of their partnership with Washington. Although US officials have repeated their “strong opposition” to additional Turkish military operations in Syria, the Biden administration’s overall reaction was largely subdued. In November, in one action that was reminiscent of the 2019 Turkish operations in northern Syria, Turkey once again launched an airstrike close to US forces, risking the lives of American soldiers. But unlike the Trump administration, which levied sanctions on Turkish officials, the Biden White House has chosen to look the other way.

Although US officials have repeated their “strong opposition” to additional Turkish military operations in Syria, the Biden administration’s overall reaction was largely subdued.

Such reticence may be attributed to Turkey’s heightened significance because of the Ukraine war. Washington may also have calculated that Turkish authorities are seeking an opportunity to engage in a war of words with US officials, and thus chose to strategically avoid playing into Erdoğan’s hands as he tries to build up populist anti-American rhetoric before the Turkish election. Turkey’s provocations were quite predictable: the Turkish authorities blamed the US for the Taksim bombing and rejected the White House’s condolences, with Turkish Minister of the Interior Suleyman Soylu stating that US expressions of sympathy were akin to “a killer being first to show up at a crime scene” and also alleging that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is subordinate to US intelligence agencies.

A prospective opening between Ankara and Damascus will not turn into a quick cooperative effort that will threaten the United States’ presence in Syria. But an Erdoğan-Assad rapprochement has the potential to strengthen Putin’s role in shaping the Syrian scene. Rising tensions between the United States and Russia will further complicate efforts to evaluate long-term American goals that include countering IS and weakening the Tehran-Damascus axis, which remains yet another factor influencing a possible Turkish-Syrian rapprochement.

Featured image credit: SANA