Erdoğan’s olive branch to Assad is about next election

Turkey’s suggestion that it could re-establish dialogue with Syria is based on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political calculations surrounding next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, said Haid Haid, a Syrian columnist and consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.

Erdoğan is hoping that entering normalisation talks with Syria, or the prospect of doing so, would help him win the election, regardless of the outcome of any negotiations. That is because Erdoğan would be seen to be doing something about returning millions of Syrian refugees, who many Turks say have outstayed their welcome, Haid said in an article published by the Asia Times on Tuesday.

The Turkish president has lost political support among some Turks due to his policy of welcoming around 4 million Syrians. The political opposition meanwhile is saying that it will negotiate directly with the Syrian government to return them.

“That his initiative could bear no fruit appears to be secondary to Erdoğan,” Haid said. “The Turkish president hopes that even just sending conciliatory signals to Syria would help lift his image at home and drum up political support.”

A full version of the article follows below:

 Turkey has recently suggested that it wants to establish dialogue with the Syrian government after years of fraught relations. The gesture came as a surprise to many given that there is little indication that such talks would lead to any tangible breakthrough.

There remain bitter hostility and distrust between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad more than a decade after Turkey threw its weight behind Syrian opposition fighters battling Assad’s forces. Russia at one time could have played the mediator role, but the invasion of Ukraine means Moscow is in no position to take on such a task now.

Erdoğan’s initiative becomes less puzzling, however, when viewed through the lens of the upcoming general elections in Turkey. By appearing to be willing to mend ties with Assad, Erdoğan hopes to ease the widespread resentment caused by his policies toward Syria and its refugees, which might, among other issues, cost him the 2023 elections.

Ankara’s willingness to enter talks with Damascus was revealed by the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper. Using anonymous sources, the daily reported that Turkey’s main priorities for restoring ties with Syria were to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their country and to counter the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey has been locked in a decades-long battle with militants from the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organisation.

In an attempt to appear optimistic, Turkish government officials quoted by the newspaper framed Assad’s visit last month to the United Arab Emirates as a sign that he is seeking new openings and support. The sources also blamed Russia and Iran for obstructing previous opportunities to improve relations with Syria.

Through these remarks, they indicated that the situation is now more suitable for a new beginning with Damascus given that the Syrian regime’s closest allies are preoccupied with their own issues: Russia with Ukraine and Iran with the nuclear talks.

However, Damascus does not seem as eager to return the apparent goodwill. Syrian Foreign Ministry sources, quoted by the pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan, stated that Syria remains firm on its preconditions to entering any dialogue with Turkey. Chief among these is the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria, which is a deal-breaker for Turkey.

The latter’s presence in Syria is the main obstacle preventing the Assad regime from recapturing the last opposition-held pocket in the northwest. Assad’s ability to achieve such a military victory would strip Turkey of its main negotiating card in Syria. It would also send more Syrian refugees to Turkey, which would exacerbate Erdoğan’s problems instead of solving them.

The Syrian government’s reluctance to seek reconciliation with Ankara does not appear to be a typical pre-negotiations tactic. The relatively short window before the Turkish general elections means that any dialogue would only benefit Turkey. Entering such talks would allow Erdoğan to gain political ground at home, regardless of the outcome.

Besides, Assad’s personal hatred of Erdoğan means he would avoid doing anything that would help him domestically, in the hope he would be ousted in the elections and replaced with a friendlier government. 

That his initiative could bear no fruit appears to be secondary to Erdoğan. The Turkish president hopes that even just sending conciliatory signals to Syria would help lift his image at home and drum up political support.

There is deep resentment among the Turkish population toward the 4 million Syrian refugees in their country. In Turkey’s polarised political climate, the Syrian refugees are viewed as a by-product of Erdoğan’s failed Syria policy. As such, many analysts view them as one of the main causes behind the ruling Justice and Development Party’s historic loss in local elections in 2019.

As a result, the Turkish government’s approach to Syrian refugees changed significantly. Security forces started to round up refugees and send them back to the Turkish provinces where they were registered. Some have been deported, while others are being encouraged to return voluntarily to Syria.

Nonetheless, Erdoğan’s main political opponent, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), continued to criticise the Turkish government’s handling of the issue and promised to deal directly with Assad to send Syrian refugees back. Earlier this year, the CHP’s leader pledged to prepare the groundwork for returning refugees within two years.

In the absence of mass deportations before the elections, Erdoğan appears to be left with only one choice: mimicking the CHP’s promise. Through such a move, Erdoğan hopes to reconnect with his election ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, as well as many of his former supporters who currently prioritise the return of Syrian refugees over their loyalty to the ruling party.

Even if it is unsuccessful, the Turkish government would be indirectly showing Turkish voters that it is trying to fix its mistakes by attempting to engage with Assad to return the refugees. It would also offer a hint to voters of an end to Ankara’s direct intervention in Syria.

It is not clear how successful Erdoğan’s calculated move will be in reconnecting with those Turks who withdrew their support for him over his Syria policy. But what seems to be certain is that Assad and Erdoğan will not be shaking hands any time soon.

(For a link to the Asia Times version of the story, click here. The article was originally published by the Syndication Bureau.)

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