Turkish election the keyword for Erdoğan’s normalisation with Assad
The pragmatism of decision-makers in Ankara surprised most observers of Turkish-Syrian relations. Normalisation between the Turkish president and the president of the Syrian regime was not something that would have come to mind only months ago. The expectations were that the contacts would remain on an indirect intelligence level mediated by Moscow or Tehran, or at best a direct security contact.
This month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he may meet with President of Syria Bashar Assad when the time is right.
There are several reasons that prompted Turkey to change its tone toward Damascus and think pragmatically, away from the values that it has adhered to for more than a decade.
Certainly, the upcoming Turkish elections are the main reason for the change in the Turkish position, based on the need to raise the popularity of the Turkish president after many economic and domestic political challenges.
The Turkish mood toward the presence of millions of Syrian refugees in their country has shifted from opening the doors for them to scepticism and assuming they caused the internal economic crisis with an increase in hatred and security problems.
It appears to be the desire of Turkey’s ruling party the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to withdraw a key card in the hands of the Turkish opposition, which held it responsible for the influx of refugees.
The new calculations between Ankara and Damascus will open the door to the return of refugees — either voluntarily or by pressure — to northern Syria, where the Turkish army controls the region.
There is no doubt that Turkey wishes to form residential settlements in northern Syria to reduce the number of refugees inside its own territory, while at the same time imposing a new demographic change that diminishes the Syrian Kurds’ control over the north.
The AKP will not hesitate to use this step, if it is achieved in the context of the election campaigns, as a major victory over the opposition, which opposed the presence of refugees.
Establishing residential areas in what is called the “safe zone” in the north requires providing protection from any military escalation that might push the refugees back to Turkey. Therefore, Turkey, in coordination with Russia, believes that opening up to the Syrian regime will mean stopping the military clash between Ankara and Damascus.
It is true that Ankara’s wish to stop the war with Damascus does not mean, according to its view, the end of the war. On the contrary, it will be a war of a different kind.
The Turkish president wants to score other points by opening battles and special military operations in the northeast against the Syrian Kurdish influence there and weakening its ability to impose a federal state system, which may threaten Turkish national security by urging the Kurds in Turkey to take the same step.
This move will also attract Turkish nationalists to vote in the elections for Erdoğan, as Turkish nationalists are against any Kurdish influence in the region.
The truce between Erdoğan and Assad will attract secular Turks to vote in favour of Erdoğan, as Turkish secular circles reject the war in Syria.
Opening up to the Syrian regime will enable Russian-Turkish relations in the Syrian case at the expense of Iranian influence. Moscow is concerned about Iranian expansion while it is preoccupied with the Ukrainian war, and Ankara shares this concern.
Therefore, Russia is pressuring the Syrian regime by not obstructing Turkish openness, reducing the conditions, and not insisting on the withdrawal of the Turkish army from the north. It is also calling for a renewal of the Adana Agreement, which was signed on Oct. 20, 1998, with the expansion of the Turkish entry margin to a depth of 30 km and in exceptional cases 60 km from the Syrian border.
My initial thoughts are that the general trend is toward de-escalation and freezing the dispute more than full normalisation for several reasons, the most important of which is Turkey’s unwillingness to withdraw militarily from Syria, which is the regime’s demand. Full normalisation with the regime will also affect Erdoğan’s popularity among conservatives and loyalists of the Justice and Development Party and those close to them.
Turkey also accepted Russia’s proposal for rapprochement with the Syrian regime on the principle of separating the Syrian files, meaning that Turkish rapprochement with the regime does not mean finding a political solution between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition. The reason behind this is Turkey’s unwillingness to irritate its Western allies and push them to block this step.
However, if the Russians were able to persuade the Syrian regime to abide by U.N. Resolution 2254, the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement might turn into a prelude to a comprehensive political solution in Syria. This option is unlikely, however, because of Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine and its desire to keep the Syrian file frozen in order not to give Western countries an opportunity to formulate a Syrian political solution that does not suit Moscow.
Certainly, the Turkish rapprochement with the regime may fail and remain only at the intelligence and security level. The possibility of the talks failing is very high. Turkey has many demands, especially with regard to confronting the Kurdish entity in Syria, and this matter is linked to the United States more than to Russia.
This means that in the event Moscow is unable to provide reassurances and give Ankara the green light to conduct a military operation in the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, talks between Ankara and Damascus will remain at the security level without a real political horizon.
Hakan Fidan, director of Turkish National Intelligence Agency, and Ali Mamlouk, director of the Syrian National Security Office, met more than six times intermittently during the past two years in Moscow, Tehran, Damascus and Ankara, and the horizon of openness may remain limited to this level if Ankara does not achieve what it wants.
If Ankara achieves what it seeks from this openness, it is not out of the question that Erdoğan, who previously sought to overthrow Assad, will meet with him.
(This article by British-Syrian journalist Ghassan Ibrahim was originally published on Arab News.)