Assad, Erdoğan and Putin’s ‘goblet of normalisation’

Recent developments in diplomatic relations between Syria and Turkey signal the beginning of a new phase, one where Russian President Vladimir Putin may manage to convince Turkey’s Erdoğan and Syria’s Assad to accept his desire for normalisation, pan-arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat senior diplomatic editor Ibrahim Hamidi wrote on Saturday.

“Conditions have become more favourable for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to shift from attending security meetings in Moscow and Tehran to normalising political ties between Ankara and Damascus,” Hamidi wrote.

A full reproduction of the article follows below.

It is quite known that Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing his Syrian and Turkish counterparts to drink from the goblet of ‘normalisation’. This desire is as old as Russia's military intervention in Syria seven years ago.

But what is new is that conditions have become more favourable for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to shift from attending security meetings in Moscow and Tehran to normalising political ties between Ankara and Damascus.

The ‘deposit’ lodged by Putin in Erdoğan’s pocket a few days ago at their meeting in the Black Sea city of Sochi proposed that instead of Turkey launching a new military operation in northern Syria, the Turkish president would call Assad and hold negotiations to meet Turkish security demands.

It is noteworthy that several meetings were held between the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan. Some of the meetings were publicly held in Moscow at the start of 2020. Other meetings, especially those convened to discuss developing a new version of the 1998 Adana Agreement, were held in secret.

In fact, developing the Adana Agreement and security cooperation against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) requires political normalisation and the opening of diplomatic channels.

Putin’s key is for Erdoğan to communicate directly with Assad with the blessing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, each of the three presidents sees this move from a different angle. Here there are losses and there are risks.

The Russian president is ready for this step because it weakens the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) allied to the United States, Britain, and France. These are the countries that are fighting Russia in Ukraine.

Moreover, such a move would strengthen the Russian role in Syria and give legitimacy to the regime in Damascus. It would do so by neutralising the Turkish role in support of the Syrian opposition.

If successful, the normalisation of ties between Damascus and Ankara would turn a key page of the last decade.

For Putin, such a step increases the chances of his ‘arch-friend’ and ‘hostile partner’ in many arenas, Erdoğan, to win the elections in the middle of next year.

However, this expected ‘gift’ from Putin completely contradicts the desire of Assad, who does not want a new presidential term for Erdoğan, who has been giving military and political support to the Syrian opposition for the last decade.

For Assad, normalising ties with Turkey could constitute an embarrassment that is difficult to navigate among his allies in Damascus and abroad –especially that Turkey continues to occupy large swathes of land in northern Syria that are twice the size of Lebanon.

Also, Erdoğan has been the target subject of media campaigns, accusations, and criticisms by Syrian authorities.

Khamenei, the third partner in the Astana process and the control of Syrian territory, has complicated calculations as well.

Tehran wants to support Assad and weaken U.S. allies and does not want Turkish incursions. It also agrees with Damascus and Ankara in rejecting Kurdish entities.

Indeed, the three countries coordinated against Iraqi Kurdistan in the 90s. But Iran also has rivalries with Turkey and Russia in Syria and elsewhere.

For his part, Erdoğan wants to neutralise the Syrian refugee issue and to deal a blow to Syria’s Kurds before upcoming elections.

He also does not mind security and political coordination with Damascus to keep Kurds away.

However, he finds it embarrassing to switch stances on Assad and Damascus. For years, Erdoğan had raised the ceiling of his stances and support for the opposition.

Most likely, Putin is pushing the relationship between Assad and Erdoğan to new stages.

The first stage was after the protests in early 2011, when meetings were held to search for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis.

The second stage witnessed maximum hostility in the Turkish president’s rhetoric about Assad stepping down.

The third stage saw Erdoğan’s focus shift from “regime change” in Syria to making deals with Putin for disbanding the Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Subsequently, Turkey spread its forces in several Syrian enclaves.

The fourth and newest stage includes political dealings under Putin's umbrella. Erdoğan would deal with Assad as president. In turn, Assad would accept Erdoğan as an interlocutor.

This may come as a shock or surprise to some. But it is okay to recall the fluctuations of the Damascus-Ankara line over the decades as there have been many upheavals in the Syrian-Turkish-Kurdish triangle.

In mid-1998, Turkey massed its army on Syria’s borders and demanded the expulsion of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Afterwards, the Adana Agreement, which established security cooperation against the PKK, was signed.

When Syrian President Hafez al-Assad died, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s participation in the funeral inaugurated the transition to a new political dimension and the intensification of cooperation against the PKK.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations gradually moved towards more cooperation and more visits and meetings between Assad and Erdoğan.

This led to a ‘strategic partnership’, ‘eliminating borders’, and a tacit recognition of the annexation of İskenderun (Hatay).

Indeed, Erdoğan was among the few leaders who maintained a relationship with Assad after the United States isolated Damascus over the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Moreover, Erdoğan mediated between Assad and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Erdoğan talking about Putin asking him to contact Assad, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently recalling a “quick chat” he had with his Syrian counterpart last year, and Damascus holding back on its condemnation of Turkey are all factors likely signalling a new beginning whereby Assad and Erdoğan drink from Putin’s “goblet of normalisation.”

(The original version of this article can be found here.)

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