Is a Ankara-Damascus rapprochement possible?

The Turkish government wants a permanent solution to the ongoing civil war, and the concentrated enmity in the hearts of the Syrian people will impede a likely reconciliation.

10 mins read

It is now official that the Turkish government plans to re-approach the Assad regime after a long period of enmity, literally when the Arab Spring stretched out to Syria in 2011. There were unofficial meetings between the intelligence services of the two countries, but first Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, then president Recep Tayyip Erdogan disclosed the plan to encourage the Syrian opposition to reconcile with Bashar al-Assad.

The regime, for its part, stipulates some conditions, such as (1) handover of Idlib to Damascus, (2) control of some customs gates on the Turkish border, (3) full control of the M4 highway, and (4) Turkish support to the regime against sanctions imposed on individuals and companies close to Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, the Ankara government is said to have asked the regime (1) to collaborate against YPG/PKK terrorism; (2) To allow a peaceful integration of opposition groups with the Damascus administration; and (3) to ensure the safe return of migrants to the regime-controlled areas. However, none of the above conditions have been narrated by officials rather than the media or unauthorized politicians. On the other hand, Turkish top diplomat Çavuşoğlu said that negotiations between the two governments should start unconditionally.

In addition, Iranian media even went so far as to say that Erdogan and Assad might meet during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit that is to be held in Uzbekistan on September 15-16. Yet, Çavuşoğlu denied the possibility of a meeting and said Assad was not even invited to the summit. Indeed, a likely meeting looks unlikely in the short term and perhaps will never happen since, as Syrian analyst Sinan Hatahet says; “There is little reason to believe so. Erdogan is engaged in rhetorical politics and knows he will gain nothing from meeting Assad. Assad also does not want to offer what is perceived as a helping hand to Erdogan in his quest for his re-election.”

When the positions of the two neighboring countries are analyzed, it can be estimated that the Assad regime is probably happy with current conditions. First of all, half of the Syrian population has been displaced by the regime attacks, and the absence of almost 10 million people lightens the burden of Damascus. The regime does not have to concern itself with the economics, social life, education, and other basic needs of those emigrating abroad or living in north Syria. In addition, politically, there is almost no opposition that may challenge Assad since Sunni groups and Kurds are not in a position to force him to hold free elections or be his rivals. Those living in the regime-controlled areas are mainly Assad supporters who will hardly challenge him. On the other hand, the return of migrants will pose political, economic and security threats.

Yet, Assad will still be happy with an entente with Türkiye in order to balance off a post-JCPOA Iran’s influence in Syria, recover the economy, and win a victory over the opposition by riding them off their last supporter in the region.

As for Türkiye, the government is under massive pressure from the Turkish right-wing and general population due to the long-stay of Syrians. People suffer from deteriorating economic conditions and blame the presence of Syrians, for whom they criticize the government’s migrant policy. In fact, Syrian migrants have nothing to do with the economic crisis, but opposition parties’ anti-migrant propaganda could convince people that migrants are the source of the problem. As Erdogan’s ruling party, AK Party, lost mayoral elections due to migrants (and several other reasons), the Turkish president does not want to lose the general elections, either. Moreover, the YPG/PKK threat coming from Syria is also a matter of concern for the Turkish government. To evade the threat, the government might think it is a good idea to reproach the Assad regime, though reluctantly.

However, how serious the two sides are should be questioned. The Syrian side’s non-confirmed demands are like those of a war-winning country, which are far from reality. In addition, since Russia is the real decision-maker in Syria and not Assad, what Putin approves is more important than what regime officials request.

For the Turkish side, according to Omer Ozkizilcik, a foreign policy analyst mainly focusing on Syria; “The Russian efforts to reconcile both sides are mission impossible but this will not hinder the Turkish side to make statements about a reconciliation with the Assad regime. For Ozkizilcik, these statements serve two main goals: “The first is to respond to the Russian pressure and show that reconciliation with the Assad regime is not possible as the regime does not accept any kind of political solution with the Syrian opposition. The second goal is to take the cards of the Turkish opposition from their hands. The upcoming election in Turkey has two main topics: the economy and migration. Almost all Turkish opposition parties argue that a reconciliation with the Assad regime will facilitate the return of refugees back to Syria and that the Turkish government’s stubbornness is the only obstacle in front of the return of refugees. As this argument has been bought up by the Turkish electorate, the ruling AK party is now showing to the Turkish electorate that the obstacle is not the willingness of the Turkish government.”

Sinan Hatahet also agrees with Ozkizilcik and argues that “Turkey is engaged in rhetorical politics, a tactical approach rather than a strategic one. All efforts are to look for new ways to gather votes for the next elections, and opening communication channels with Assad is riding the opposition from one of their major foreign policy promises on their agenda.”

Indeed, neither the Syrian opposition nor the regime are eager to reconcile because the animosity is far from over . Though, the Turkish government wants a permanent solution to the ongoing civil war, and the concentrated enmity in the hearts of the Syrian people will impede a likely reconciliation. The Turkish government will most likely do its best to show its honest and serious efforts towards a likely peace, but if the Syrian opposition does not reconcile, the Turkish government will not leave it alone. While Türkiye and Syria will improve relations to some extent, normalization is less likely to happen. Because it should be noted that the warring sides, namely the Syrian opposition and the regime, will decide whether to move forward or not, and Türkiye as a third party, cannot give the final decision on behalf of the Syrian opposition. If Türkiye still pushes for the reconciliation, Syrian civilians and refugees in Türkiye may try to immigrate again to the EU instead of Syria. Syrians in opposition-held areas might also be encouraged to revolt against the Turkish army’s local partners.

On the other hand, Russia can certainly decide on the future of Syria. While Ankara’s pressure on the opposition is not decisive, Moscow can force the Assad regime to give concessions. Perhaps the best option for Russia is to persuade or force Bashar al-Assad to prepare a new constitution and step-down aftermath. Therefore, what matters is not Türkiye- Syria reconciliation, but rather the solution Russia will offer. All the other details will hardly have an effect on ending the ongoing civil war.

Ibrahim Karatas

Dr. Ibrahim Karatas is a political analyst and journalist who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, the Middle East and security.

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