Washington – Recently, there have been signs of reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, which have been at loggerheads for more than a decade as Ankara backed Syrian rebel forces fighting Damascus.
The pro-government daily Hurriyet reported on September 16 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had expressed a desire to meet his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, although Assad was not there.
I wish Assad had come to Uzbekistan; I would have spoken to him, Erdogan said in a closed meeting with his ruling Justice and Development Party, according to Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi.
Turkey’s Erdogan eyes reset with Syria
Last month, Erdogan also said he would never rule out dialogue with Syria, adding that “we should take further steps with Syria.”
Reuters reported on September 15 that Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s national intelligence agency, had met several times with his counterpart, Syria’s National Security Agency chairman Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus in recent weeks, according to four sources.
“Change in Rhetoric”
Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, told VOA that this development is not new, as Turkey has been working closely with the Assad regime since 2016.
“I think the new thing that we’re seeing right now is the change in rhetoric. We’re hearing more loudly from Turkish officials that normalization with the regime is a possibility,” Tol said in a phone interview in response to questions about Erdogan’s latest statement on relations with Syria.
“But in reality, if you look at all the developments that have happened since 2016, I don’t think this is shocking.”
Tol said that since Erdogan began aligning his party with the nationalists to consolidate power, his top priority has shifted from toppling the Assad regime to curbing Kurdish advances in northern Syria.
“To realize that goal, he not only needed a Russian green light, but he also had to work closely with the regime itself. … So there was a tacit agreement between the two — while Erdogan attacks the Kurds, Assad looks the other way, Tol said.
Turkey has conducted four military operations in Syria since 2016 and considers the armed Kurdish YPG militia, a key part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, to be a national security threat.
Ankara sees the Syrian Democratic Forces as a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which both Turkey and the United States have designated a terrorist organization.
NATO member Turkey has a military presence in large parts of northern Syria. Damascus considers Turkey an occupying power and demands its unconditional withdrawal from Syria.
In June, Erdogan announced plans to launch a new military invasion in northern Syria, targeting the areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij to form a safe zone along the Syrian border. But that hasn’t happened yet.
US allies in northeastern Syria warn of new Turkish incursions
Russian and pro-Syrian government forces have a presence in these areas, and Russia has not backed Turkey’s operation.
Aron Lund, fellow at Century International and Middle East analyst at the Total Defense Research Institute, thinks Erdogan saw an opportunity for a new military operation while the US and Russia mostly focused on Ukraine.
Lund notes that Ankara does not need to ask for Washington’s green light because the US is not involved with the SDF forces in the area where Turkey is eyeing an operation.
“Erdogan felt that Russia has weakened and is under more international pressure, so they won’t be able to get the same level of push back in Syria. So this is basically a good opportunity to go after the Syrian Democratic Forces because the US and the Europeans will offer more muted criticism than they normally would and the Russians will be more open to negotiating at Assad’s expense,” Lund told VOA in a conversation.
“But Russia parried it successfully and dragged Erdogan into a negotiation process where the counter demand is that he has to talk to Assad, or not Assad personally maybe, without some kind of normalization of their relationship,” Lund added.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday that Moscow is willing to organize a meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
‘We think so [a foreign minister-level meeting] would be useful. We are talking about establishing contacts, now so far through the military and intelligence services – there have been such contacts, said Bogdanov, who answered a question about the possibility of such a meeting.
On the other hand, Mekdad told Sputnik on Saturday that there was no contact or meeting with the Turkish officials during the UN General Assembly. “There is no negotiation, no contact, at least nothing at the level of foreign ministers,” Mekdad said.
Mekdad also accused Turkey of not fulfilling the agreed commitments of the Astana process but developing them. Erdogan, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin gathered in Tehran for Astana talks in July.
“The only obstacle to the peace process is Turkey’s lack of commitment,” Mekdad told Sputnik on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Return of refugees
Turkey’s pro-government daily, Sabah, reported on September 17 that Syrian and Turkish intelligence officials discussed several issues, including the completion of Syria’s new constitution process, the repeal of its expropriation law that allowed the Syrian government to confiscate property left behind by refugees, and the safe. return of these refugees from Syria. Turkey hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world.”
Turkey’s State Disaster and Preparedness Agency announced that over 68,000 briquette houses have been built in Syria for the refugees to return.
International rights groups, including Amnesty International, say that war-torn Syria is still not safe to return.
Aaron Stein, Turkey expert and chief content officer at Metamorphic Media, says the parameters of Turkish foreign policy toward Syria haven’t changed since 2016, but what has changed is that the domestic political dynamics in Turkey have gotten so bad for Erdogan’s party.
Refugees in Turkey are afraid when emotions turn against them
Stein cited rising anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in Turkey and the country’s economic crisis, with official inflation last month at 80.2%.
The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for June next year, but opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Erdogan has dismissed. The alliance of six opposition parties against Erdogan has promised to return Syrian refugees in a humane manner. On the other hand, the far-right Victory Party calls for forced deportations of Syrian refugees and blames them for rising food prices.
No Turk cares about Bashar al-Assad. What people care about in Turkey is that the cost of living is going up, and that food prices are out of control and wages remain stagnant, Stein told VOA.
Stein said he doesn’t expect any real progress on the Turkey-Syria rapprochement, adding, “I think the value for Erdogan now is that he can tell voters he’s working on a problem.”
This story originated in VOA’s Turkish service.