Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid an important visit to Moscow in mid-March 2023. One of the main agenda items was the Turkish-Syrian reconciliation that Russia has been trying to broker as of late. The Turkish and Syrian defense ministers had already met in Moscow on December 28, 2022, in what was the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the breakdown of their relations in 2011. Moreover, following this ministerial-level meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his desire to eventually meet with Assad, arguing that they should put aside personal issues for the good of their countries. But against this backdrop, Assad’s announcement during his recent visit to Russia that he would not meet Erdoğan until the Turkish occupation in Syria ends was a clear signal that reconciliation will not be easy. To see the obstacles, however, one first needs to look at the motivations and priorities of both leaders, and at how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to reconcile them.
Erdoğan’s U-Turns in Foreign Policy
After a decade of confrontational foreign policy that pitted Turkey against most Middle Eastern countries, Erdoğan started a regional reset in mid-2021. Following a series of reconciliation moves involving Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan finally put forth the agenda of reconciling with Assad in August 2022. Ironically, however, around the same time he also started to seriously indicate the possibility of launching another military operation into northern Syria. This apparent contradiction should be understood as part of Erdoğan’s foreign policy strategy. Erdoğan tries to keep his options as broad as possible and to further his interests by maneuvering between different and sometimes conflicting policy options. His Syria policy is no different. However, while Turkey’s regional reset with other Middle Eastern states has geopolitical and economic dimensions, Erdoğan’s Syria policy is almost entirely shaped by his domestic political calculations.
While both Erdoğan and Assad have expressed an openness in principle to diplomatic negotiations and the improvement of relations, Erdoğan is clearly much more enthusiastic about rapprochement. This represents a significant about-face for the Turkish president, who will run for a third term on May 14. However, this will not be the first time that Erdoğan has made such a reversal; and as previous examples have shown, Erdoğan’s electoral base is not particularly bothered by their leader’s U-turns on foreign policy. On the contrary, Erdoğan expects domestic benefits from reconciliation with Syria in the run-up to the elections.
While Turkey’s regional reset with other Middle Eastern states has geopolitical and economic dimensions, Erdoğan’s Syria policy is almost entirely shaped by his domestic political calculations.
First, Erdoğan wants to promote reconciliation with the Syrian regime as a prelude to solving Turkey’s growing refugee crisis. Turkey today is home to the world’s largest refugee population, the majority of which is comprised of Syrians. This is one of the most pressing domestic issues, and anti-refugee sentiment is growing among the Turkish public. Moreover, this anti-refugee stance is becoming a bipartisan consensus among the electorate, meaning that even Erdoğan’s voter base increasingly shares the opposition’s anti-refugee stance.
Second, and relatedly, Erdoğan hopes that by reconciling with Assad he can take away one of the opposition’s main talking points. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the joint presidential candidate of the largest opposition alliance, has for years proposed reconciliation with the Assad regime as a solution to Turkey’s refugee crisis. By establishing peace with Syria and helping to stabilize it, Kilicdaroglu has argued, he would create a political context in which Syrian refugees residing in Turkey would voluntarily return home. While this policy may sound naïve and unrealistic, especially given the Assad regime’s lack of desire for repatriation and its track record of human rights abuses against returning refugees, it resonated with the public. This policy manages to appease those holding anti-refugee sentiments, but without endorsing the Turkish far right’s demands for the forceful expulsion of all Syrians.
If Erdoğan succeeds in reconciling with Assad, he will claim that he has already fulfilled what the opposition promised. The repatriation of Syrians, even in modest numbers, following a personal meeting between Erdoğan and Assad would strengthen Erdoğan’s self-promoted image as a strong leader capable of making decisive calls.
Assad’s Calculations and the Problem of Prioritization
Assad’s motivations for reconciliation, meanwhile, are clearer. First, reconciliation would signal victory for Assad and the Syrian regime. For years, Turkey has been the number one political and military sponsor of the Syrian opposition. Turkey’s Syria policy entered a new phase in 2016 when it implicitly acknowledged that its regime change policy had failed. Since then, Turkey’s priority in Syria has been to prevent both the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish political structure and new waves of refugees into Turkey. However, it has continued to rhetorically demand the departure of the Assad regime, despite practically backing away from its policy demanding regime change in Syria. Turkey’s reconciliation with the Syrian regime and a face-to-face meeting between the two presidents would formalize Assad’s victory. It would also significantly boost the diplomatic standing of the regime and speed up its reconciliation with the rest of the world.
However, without addressing the issue of Syria’s territorial integrity, these benefits are too small for the Assad regime, especially considering that Turkey occupies significant Syrian territory and protects militias fighting against the regime. Assad has therefore put forward two preconditions for the reconciliation to move forward: the end of Turkish support for the Syrian opposition and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory.
Assad has therefore put forward two preconditions for the reconciliation to move forward: the end of Turkish support for the Syrian opposition and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory.
This creates a problem of prioritization between the two sides. Turkey cannot meet Syria’s demands in the short term, and Ankara therefore insists that reconciliation talks start without any preconditions. As mentioned above, Ankara’s insistence stems from Erdoğan’s domestic political calculations and the timing of elections. More precisely, Erdoğan is more interested in having a meeting with Assad than he is in a concrete reconciliation in the short term. With the clock ticking, he is calling for talks first and negotiations later. From Assad’s point of view, however, this suggests that Erdoğan’s call for reconciliation is more optics-driven than actually aimed at a policy change. This perception only serves to fuel personal animosities between the two leaders and to exacerbate the problem of bilateral trust.
Assad does not want to lend Erdoğan a helping hand in the run-up to the elections—or, to put it another way, he does not want to do so without a suitable price for his efforts. Moreover, unlike Erdoğan, Assad is not feeling the pressure of time. Since reconciliation with Syria has been on the agenda of the Turkish opposition for several years, he does not fear a change of government in Ankara. Therefore, time is working in Assad’s favor, allowing him to insist on his preconditions.
The Earthquake and Its Impact on Reconciliation
The two massive earthquakes that struck Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 and that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in the two countries have also further diminished the already low prospects of a quick reconciliation between the two leaders. The earthquake had two negative effects on reconciliation. First, if one of Assad’s potential gains from reconciliation with Erdoğan was that it would accelerate the process of breaking his diplomatic isolation, he already began achieving just that immediately following the earthquakes. While Assad was unable to use the earthquake to break his isolation from the West, he was able to rapidly improve his relations with the Arab world.
While it is true that Syria’s readmission to the Arab world was already underway, the earthquake accelerated this process. After the disaster, Assad visited Oman and the UAE, and had a phone conversation with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Assad also hosted Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Damascus, the highest Egyptian official to visit Syria since 2011. Perhaps most consequentially, Saudi Arabia decided to reopen its embassy in Damascus. By reconciling with Syria and bringing it back into the Arab fold, these countries are hoping to reduce Iranian influence in Syria. Given all these developments, it seems more likely than ever that Syria will be readmitted to the Arab League in the near future. From Assad’s point of view, these positive prospects for breaking his international isolation diminish the importance of a political reconciliation with Turkey.
From Assad’s point of view, these positive prospects for breaking his international isolation diminish the importance of a political reconciliation with Turkey.
Another benefit of reconciliation would be to prevent a new Turkish incursion into Syrian territory. Turkey has already conducted several sizeable military operations in Syria, and directly or indirectly occupies a significant part of Syrian territory. As mentioned above, Erdoğan has been talking about a new operation in northern Syria since the summer of 2022. While this operation, like the preceding ones, would require a green light from Russia and the United States, the Syrian regime is too weak to prevent the maneuver if and when Turkey receives said green light. However, the ongoing political dialogue between the two countries could support Damascus’ efforts to prevent Ankara’s military expansion.
So far, Erdoğan has been unable to proceed with his promise of a new military operation, but it remains an imminent threat. Many experts previously believed that Erdoğan would push for such an operation just before the elections that are scheduled for May 14. However, the earthquakes significantly reduced the likelihood of such an operation, as Turkey is now too preoccupied with tending its own wounds. Ankara has used diplomatic recognition as a carrot and the threat of a new military operation as a stick in order to bring Assad to the negotiation table. But after the earthquake, the carrot is no longer as attractive, and the stick is no longer as threatening.
The Russian Factor
Given all these post-earthquake recalibrations, Assad has become even more assertive in his position that no personal meetings will be possible unless his two preconditions are met. During his latest visit to Moscow, he gave two interviews to Russian media stating his position. This was also another indicator that, despite claims to the contrary, Russia’s influence over the Assad regime is not unlimited and that Damascus can occasionally resist Moscow’s demands. Due to Assad’s firm position, a meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Iran, which was originally scheduled for mid-March, was cancelled. In fact, Turkey initially wanted to have the meeting at the level of foreign ministers, but due to Syria’s opposition agreed on a meeting at the level of deputy ministers.
If the reconciliation eventually succeeds, it would to a large extent be due to Russian mediation. Russia has multiple stakes in a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation.
If the reconciliation eventually succeeds, it would to a large extent be due to Russian mediation. Russia has multiple stakes in a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation. Since 2015, Russia has been the main backer of the Syrian regime. It was thanks to the Russian military presence that the Assad regime survived and eventually managed to defeat the Syrian opposition. Now, by brokering a peace between Assad and Erdoğan, Putin wants to seal his victory. This would also help strengthen Putin’s image as a dealmaker in the Middle East, particularly in the aftermath of the Chinese mediated Saudi-Iran reconciliation.
Russia would also be happy to support Erdoğan’s domestic position. It has already lent Erdoğan a helping hand by opening new credit lines and depositing a significant amount of US dollars in the Turkish Central Bank to boost Turkey’s extremely low foreign exchange reserves. And it is aiming to create yet another tension between Turkey and the United States. The divergent policy views that Ankara and Washington hold on Syria have been one of the main issues contributing to the deterioration of US-Turkey relations. In particular, US support for the Kurdish People’s Defense Units has been the biggest thorn in Turkey-US relations. A reconciliation between Syria and Turkey would increase pressure on Kurdish groups, and would also make the US presence in Syria even more unstable than it already is. In such a complex situation, all parties will have to tread lightly going forward.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Esfera