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18.01.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Is the Syria-Turkey conflict close to a peaceful resolution?

Over the past decade, Turkish foreign policy has faced serious difficulties, and the crisis unleashed by the US and its allies in Syria has been the main reason for this. The Syrian crisis has had and continues to have several consequences for Turkey at various levels: the intensification of the Kurdish question, the build-up of the refugee crisis, the escalation of security threats at home and abroad, the increase in internal polarization due to economic and social problems, as well as the worsening of relations with several entities, global and regional alike.

With the exception of a brief period when Ankara tried to persuade Damascus to carry out reforms, Turkey has consistently sought to bring down the legitimately elected government of Bashar al-Assad by supporting opposition groups and providing asylum to millions of Syrian refugees. It should be recalled that diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2012 after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, and Erdoğan was one of the first leaders to call on Assad to step down. But in August 2022, the Turkish president said toppling Assad was no longer on his country’s agenda amid Ankara’s plans to step up a new ground offensive against Syrian Kurdish groups it considers to be “terrorist.” At the end of November, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even expressed interest in meeting with Bashar al-Assad, declaring the “possibility” of a meeting in the near future.

A week after the January 5 Turkish-Syrian defense ministers’ meeting, Erdoğan said he “could” sit down at the negotiating table with Assad to promote peace and stability in Syria. His use of the word “could” to meet with Assad is explained by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram: the Syrian president had previously turned down the Turkish president’s request to meet.

Now the question arises as to why the Turkish leader has altered his strategy. “Turkey and Syria have mutual interests in the current situation, and Ankara will demand firm guarantees from Syria for the return of Syrian refugees to their country,” Turkish newspaper Millieyt reported. During the war, numerous Syrian refugees arrived in Turkey, and this has become a problem for Ankara.  On December 31, 2022, Al Jazeera reported as follows: “After Turkey and Syria severed ties for approximately 11 years, the defense ministers of both countries met in Moscow on December 28 in the presence of their Russian counterparts. They agreed to form joint committees of defense and intelligence representatives. These committees will begin their meetings at the end of January in Moscow. After that, meetings will be held in Ankara and Damascus.”

In this regard, Fikret Ozir, a former Turkish diplomat, said: “Turkey tried to resolve the Syrian crisis through the Astana and Geneva processes, and now it is trying to intensify the processes that have reached a dead end. Turkey is trying to ensure its internal security, protect its borders with Syria and conduct the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland. This issue depends on ongoing negotiations between Syria and Turkey.”  Earlier on, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying: “The return of Syrian refugees must be voluntary and safe. Turkey has declared its readiness to cooperate in this matter.” Now Erdoğan has decided to change his country’s hostile relationship with Syria, and he wants to return relations to the pre-war state, but there are some difficulties along the way.

 Not only has the Syrian crisis gone through several different phases, there have also been important changes in Ankara’s policy. Turkish-Syrian relations, which have been full of hostility for years and even bad blood between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have now reached a new phase. On December 28, Moscow hosted the first open meeting of senior Turkish and Syrian defense and security officials in more than a decade. This important meeting caused concern and irritation among some of the parties involved in this conflict, namely the US, Israel, Kurdish militias, the armed and political opposition of Syria, as well as Syrian refugees living in Turkey. As worsening relations with Damascus have affected Ankara’s relations with several players in the Middle East, in the same vein, any thaw is likely to change its ties with other interested parties in Syria. But the question of how the talks will affect the balance of power in Turkish politics ahead of this year’s upcoming elections remains unanswered.

To make an analysis of the Syrian reality, apparently, one must start with the Syrian opposition. The Syrian political and armed opposition called on Turkey to reaffirm its support for their cause after the meeting in Moscow. Hoping to appease the opposition, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu defiantly “welcomed opposition figures and reaffirmed support” for a UN Security Council resolution that calls for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. During the Astana peace process with Russia and Iran, Ankara saw the opposition as a powerful card to play in a diplomatic game against Assad’s allies.

The next player “alarmed” by this meeting was the US, which is also a staunch supporter of the Kurdish groups in Syria, which Ankara has deemed to be terrorist. Immediately after the meeting in Moscow, Washington angrily urged all countries to think twice about rehabilitating the “cruel” Assad regime and, as usual, threatened the “disobedient” with sanctions. Although the goals of Turkey and the US were similar at the initial stage of the crisis, and the two countries often coordinated their actions, over time this cooperation weakened due to the conflict of interests of both sides.

Since the Kurdish issue escalated domestically and Ankara took a tough stance to counter the Kurdish separatist threat outside its borders, the US, in retaliation against Ankara, defiantly continued to cooperate with the Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which allowed Washington to expand the zone of its influence in Syria. The latest crisis in Turkish-American relations erupted last year when Ankara threatened to launch a new large-scale ground operation against the YPG. Thus, the third player alarmed by Turkish-Syrian relations normalizing is the US-backed Kurdish factions, which have profited from the hostility between Ankara and Damascus for more than a decade.

The fourth player is Damascus’ last and most brutal, aggressive regional enemy that remains on its southern border – Israel. If the process of normalizing Turkish-Syrian relations is successful, Israel’s role will be superfluous in the region, since other regional parties are also in the process of positive interaction with Damascus. For example, while the headlines of the world media are dominated by news of regular Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Hamas has reconciled with Damascus owing to Iran’s mediation.

While Syria does not pose a direct military threat to Israel, its potential normalization of relations with Turkey and a return to the regional fold will have several implications for Tel Aviv – notably growing Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, and even among Palestinian groups. This is one of the main reasons why the Israeli leadership considers the Syrian Kurds to be allies against Iranian influence in Syria and has supported them for several years, both diplomatically and otherwise.

Finally, talks between Ankara and Damascus have also affected the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Turkey since 2011, as Ankara recently stepped up efforts to increase what it calls “voluntary returns.” It is quite natural that the presence of refugees on Turkish territory has created several difficulties in terms of communicating with the local population and increasing food prices, at the same time placing a great burden on the country’s economy. And even monetary allocations from Europe will not solve all these complex problems.

However, there are those who support normalizing ties between Ankara and Damascus. Russia, fundamentally true to its peace-loving policy, supports the Turkish-Syrian reconciliation more than any other political entity. Moscow has established strong ties with Ankara as part of the Astana peace process, and so far both Ankara and Moscow are “moving in the same direction” in order to resolve the complex Syrian conflict. Iran, which is the third party in the Astana process, also actively supports the Russian-led talks, seeing them as a direct path to peace in the region.

In Turkey, the political opposition, which was negative about Turkey’s adverse relation with Syria, has always supported the normalization of relations and the repatriation of refugees. However, the question of how negotiations between Turkey and Syria will affect the balance of power in Turkish politics ahead of this year’s elections remains unanswered. All this will become clear just before the upcoming elections, scheduled for June 2023.

Any Turkish-Syrian rapprochement seemed unthinkable a year ago. However, not only Ankara and Damascus are involved in this positive development, but also many other players mentioned above, including Moscow, which is interested in a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis and is making every effort to establish lasting peace in this integral region of the world.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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