Turkey unlikely to follow Arab nations in shifting gears over Syria, analyst says

Turkey is unlikely to make a major shift in its Syria policy despite Arab countries indicating they are ready to bring Damascus back into the fold, according to analyst Sinem Cengiz.

Writing for Arab News on Friday, Cengiz said bilateral talks initiated across the Middle East in recent months were part of a “Biden effect”, which had paved the way for the promotion of democratic values throughout the region.  

Turkey and Egypt began a normalisation process last week after eight years of tense relations. While Saudi Arabia and Iran had begun direct talks through Iraqi mediation that officials hope will diffuse tensions, Cengiz said.

Syria is also likely to benefit from regional actors putting aside their differences and de-escalating years-old tensions, the analyst said.

Apart from Ankara, all the region’s other powers have initiated a new approach Damascus to varying degrees, she added.

Last month, Iraq announced plans to import Egyptian gas via Syria. In a meeting between Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar and his Syrian counterpart Bassam Touma, both sides emphasized the need to strengthen energy cooperation, hold joint training exercises, and share information.

The talks were a sign of the improving relations between Baghdad and Damascus, Cengiz said. “In March, prior to these two developments, Egypt called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, nearly 10 years after its membership was suspended.”

The United Arab Emirates has also indicated it favours reengagement with Damascus. “Syria’s return to the Arab fold is essential and has nothing to do with who wants or who does not want it. It is a matter of public interest and the interests of Syria and the region,” Cengiz cited UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan as saying.

According to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his country had already reached “a major understanding” with Arab states as far back as 2018, and would soon be reopening their diplomatic missions in Damascus, Cengiz said.

Although the United States opposes normalising relations with the Assad regime, it was Washington’s plans to pull its troops out of Syria that pushed regional countries into finding a way to bring Damascus back into the fold, she said.

However, despite these regional developments, Turkey is unlikely to follow suit over Syria she added.

Turkey has taken an active role in the Syrian conflict, deploying troops throughout the north and west of the country in a series of military operations. This assertive stance has led to tensions with both Assad’s key international backers, Russia and Iran, and increasingly wary Arab nations.

Ankara is actively cooperating with Russia and Iran on the Syria through the Astana/Sochi process, and has also recalibrated its regional policy in recent months through efforts to mend ties with Egypt and the Gulf countries.

These processes mean Turkey can afford to wait and see how the situation develops, Cengiz said. “It seems unlikely Ankara will make a major shift in its Syria policy for now, despite the changing conditions in the region and internationally.

“Even if such a door opens for dialogue, it is likely that Russia and Iran would play the leading role, rather than the Western countries, while Turkey would try to secure its own national interests.”

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