At one time many experts and political commentators took the view that there were real hopes for a restoration of good relations between Turkey and Syria, with Russia and Iran acting as brokers, and the prospects for a rapprochement between the two neighbors seemed rosy. But the predicted improvement in relations failed to materialize, and now, in the light of recent statements by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it seems more unlikely than ever.
In a televised interview on August 9, Bashar al-Assad said that he would not meet with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and stressed that “the goal of the Turkish president is to legitimize the presence of the Turkish occupation in Syria.” Despite several rounds of meetings between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers, as part of the Astana process – during which Moscow and Tehran have attempted to improve relations between Turkey and Syria – and despite Russia’s constant attempts to persuade the two sides to resolve their differences, these efforts have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough. Hopes were raised during the most recent meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana, which took place in June, but the event resulted only in a commitment by both sides to prepare a roadmap for the resumptions of relations between Ankara and Damascus, thus making it clear that the two sides are still far apart in terms of their views and priorities.
There are two main obstacles. Firstly, there is Turkey’s insistence that the Syrian opposition be included in the political process. Secondly, Istanbul wants the Adana Agreement to be amended to increase the depth of territory in which the Turkish armed forces are permitted to intervene in Syria to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey regards as a terrorist group, from 5 kilometers to 35 kilometers. On its part, Syria insists on the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from the Syrian provinces that Turkey is occupying, with the help of Turkish-backed rebel forces, in the northwest of the country. Judging by Turkey’s reaction so far, it is hard to imagine it agreeing to withdraw troops from Syria, at least until it receives internationally backed assurances guaranteeing an end to the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Syria.
It may be recalled that since 2016, Turkey has launched three major military incursions into Syria in order to fight the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara equates with the PKK in Turkey. Erdoğan believes that if he withdraws Turkish troops from Syria, the victories that they have won over the SDF over the last eight years will be wasted. He is also reluctant to abandon the economic benefits that the Turkish government has gained from the northern Syrian provinces. Turkish businesses have invested significant funds in the region and gained possession of valuable assets in Idlib and Afrin.
Damascus, however, does not regard the predominantly Kurdish SDF and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that make up the backbone of the SDF as extensions of the PKK or terrorists, but rather as separatist groups that it will ultimately be able to contain and absorb back into the political and military structures of the Syrian state. On the other hand, it does regard the Turkish-backed militias such as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and other militant Sunni Islamist formations as terrorist organizations, and insists that Turkey stop supporting them and that they be eradicated, along with such organizations as DAESH (banned in Russia), which Turkey has also designated as a terrorist group. Syria also wants to reassert control over the strategic M4 highway, which links the country’s Mediterranean coast with Aleppo and other regions in its northern provinces. It hopes to open up its border with Turkey, ensure security in the area and expand trade.
But Turkey continues to insist that Syria suppress the SDF and the Kurdish autonomy movements in the north of the country. Politicians in Ankara have announced that they are ready to offer Damascus political support if it takes action against the SDF as part of its legitimate campaign to “eradicate terrorism” in its territory. Although Turkey has had some success in this area, the SDF is still supported by the USA, which, here as elsewhere, is applying its “divide and conquer” tactic. Washington aims to have control over an organization that threatens the interests of both Syria and Turkey. America’s use of this tactic has not brought much success to the Biden administration, however, which is constantly having to make excuses for the ineffectiveness of its policy in Syria when addressing journalists.
The improvement of relations between Turkey and Syria may now go in one of two directions. One scenario is that the negotiations may be paused or be scaled down until new developments create conditions conducive to resolving the two countries’ remaining differences. This might even suit Russia, given its concerns about the war unleashed by the West against it in Ukraine. This approach might also to a certain extent suit Iran, which appears to be in favor of a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, despite its fears that this might work against Iranian interests in the future. But, given the more serious challenges currently faced by Tehran, it is in favor of a pause in the negotiations.
The second scenario is that the two countries may normalize their relations in the medium term. Both Ankara and Damascus have good reasons for a rapprochement, and Ankara is very interested in returning the Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey back to their homeland. In addition to its wish to relieve the economic burden of hosting the refugees, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also wants to resolve this thorny issue ahead of the 2024 municipal elections for political reasons. In the runup to the general elections in May this year, the AKP and Erdoğan lost significant ground to the Turkish opposition parties, who attempted to link the refugee issue to the country’s economic deterioration.
Another factor that could contribute to the normalization of Syria’s and Turkey’s relations in the medium term is Ankara’s need to improve relations with Moscow following the latter’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July. Making progress in the restoration of its relations with Syria could be a way for Turkey to regain Moscow’s favor after its decision to approve Sweden’s NATO membership bid. If Turkey does show a willingness to make progress in this area, then Damascus, which has good relations with Moscow, may respond favorably to a request from the latter and meet Turkey half way. However, many observers are skeptical about diplomatic maneuverings of this sort, and consider that speculations about Moscow’s future policies are rarely accurate and that Moscow will, in any event, choose its own policies.
There are many factors that may encourage Damascus to improve its relations with its northern neighbor. One such factor is the fact that Syria’s return to the Arab fold has, as yet, brought it little advantage, partly because of its continuing ties with Tehran, while a second factor is the ongoing Western boycott and other pressures that have brought the Syrian economy to the brink of collapse. It is still possible that favorable conditions for the renewal of negotiations may arise, and that the two sides may then feel able to make the concessions necessary to forge tentative agreements of some kind, which could then pave the way to a more comprehensive agreement.
While there are still serious obstacles to any normalization of relations in the near term, it is possible that the two countries’ shared interests and pragmatic considerations may push Ankara and Damascus to make choices that will allow them to overcome these difficulties and restore full relations. Many experts and political analysts believe that the way forward lies in the normalization of bilateral relations, and that it is realistic to hope for a significant improvement in relations, as this would be in the interests of both sides.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.