Remarkable developments in relations between Ankara and the Assad regime have recently occurred with statements by the Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in which he indicated the need to resolve the Syrian crisis through “reconciliation” between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. These developments come in the context of Ankara’s recent policy shift in the region, culminating in the restoration of relations with the UAE and Israel after years of escalating rhetoric and tension with those countries. Should Çavuşoğlu’s statements towards Assad be taken seriously or are they just a political manoeuvre in Syria aimed at Moscow and Tehran?
In fact, these statements cannot be separated in any way from the Turkish-Russian approach, and in my opinion, the summit that brought together Erdogan and Putin in Sochi on August 5 was the spark for this new approach towards Assad by Ankara after the Tehran summit that failed to reach a point of agreement between the three countries (Iran, Russia and Türkiye) on the Syrian scene in general. Even in Iranian-Turkish relations, there is an escalation of tension inside Türkiye through attempts to abduct and kill Israeli citizens by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards within Turkish territory, while the escalation has also extended to northern Iraq.
Therefore, if there is any discussion or agreement for Türkiye and Assad to sit at the same table, Russia will be at the centre of that table. As for Moscow’s strategy and vision regarding this deal, we need to shed some light on the hot Ukrainian scene.
On the Russian side
During the United Nations General Assembly meeting, Putin announced via video a series of escalatory steps regarding Ukraine, one of which was partial mobilisation. This step cannot be read far from the fact that the military situation in Ukraine began to dangerously drain the Russian army, and that the words of Russian politicians about victories and the collapse of Kiev are mere talk in the air. On the economic side, despite Moscow’s calmness, the latest step in cutting off natural gas to Europe under the guise of pipeline maintenance could cost the Russian economy dearly. Amidst this backdrop, Moscow needs to drastically reduce the size of its forces in Syria on the one hand and on the other hand it needs an economic window to the West. On both tracks Ankara is the solution.
On the Turkish side
I have talked in a previous article about Türkiye’s adoption of a new foreign policy that began with the arrival of Biden and the Democrats in the White House. This policy has at its core fewer political crises and rebuilding relations with the countries of the region to be in Türkiye’s interest first and to restore Ankara’s economic balance in the face of complex presidential and parliamentary elections.
This new approach is the most important determining factor in any equation for building relations between Ankara and Assad in Damascus, namely the “interests of states are built outside of morality and conscience”.
The refugee issue has recently become in Türkiye one of the most important cards of the Turkish opposition parties even though these parties have the biggest role in enhancing the impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish economyEva J. Koulouriotis
As far as the Syrian file is concerned, there are two main files that are the gateway for the Erdogan government to define its policy towards Assad and Syria in general. One is the economy, which Moscow is exploiting to soften Ankara’s stance and push it towards a turning point in Syria through trade deals and remittances promising that Türkiye will be Moscow’s window to the Western market, while the second, the thorniest file, is the refugees.
The refugee issue has recently become in Türkiye one of the most important cards of the Turkish opposition parties even though these parties have the biggest role in enhancing the impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish economy, exaggerating their burdens and distorting the reasons for their presence in the country. But the Justice and Development Party also has a role in this crisis, by overlooking this immoral rhetoric in its beginnings, on the one hand, and not developing appropriate plans and programs for the integration of Syrian refugees into Turkish society, as is the case in Germany and other European countries.
Even senior figures in the AKP are guilty of inaccurate statements that the Turkish state is bearing the burden of these refugees, despite the fact that the European Union and the United Nations have practically covered a large part of these costs. Ultimately, the Syrian refugee file has become a dilemma for Erdogan which he must solve if he wants to maintain high chances in the upcoming elections.
This reality prompted Erdogan to talk about a new military operation in northern Syria under the title of “fighting terrorism” the essence of which is to expand the areas controlled by Türkiye in order to push more refugees from its territory to those areas. In this, Ankara faced a number of obstacles, the first being the international rejection of this operation, especially Washington, which considers that any Turkish military movement in the areas controlled by the Kurdish militias will push them into the arms of Assad, Moscow and Tehran. On the other hand, Russia and Iran opposed this operation through clear political statements and military moves in Tal Rifaat, Ayn Issa and Manbij.
The gravity of the scene prompted Türkiye to review the feasibility of this operation as the reality in the area of the “Peace Spring” operation, which Türkiye controlled with the support of the Syrian military opposition in October 2019, did not bring about a significant change in the number of Syrian refugees who are in Turkish territory.
This fact made the idea of building relations, even if it is a formality, with the Assad regime which would pave the way for refugees to return to their cities, not seem bad in the eyes of the Erdogan administration and its interests.
Assad, who issued many amnesty decrees, has always violated them himself through the arbitrary and political arrests of these returnees, which has created a trust gap that cannot be easily bridged between Syrians in the liberated areas and abroad and the Assad regimeEva J. Koulouriotis
Regardless of what is published in the Turkish media about a possible deal between Ankara and Assad managed by Moscow based on the provision of guarantees for the return of refugees to their villages and towns without being exposed to jeopardy, the reality of this offer is doubtful. Assad, who issued many amnesty decrees, has always violated them himself through the arbitrary and political arrests of these returnees, which has created a trust gap that cannot be easily bridged between Syrians in the liberated areas and abroad and the Assad regime. So, what if the Syrians refuse to return and what are Türkiye’s options?
In the language of politics, such an agreement would be a stab in the back of the Syrian political and military opposition on the part of Türkiye by shredding the Syrian revolution and the crises it left behind on one issue, that of refugees. On the other hand, is Ankara ready to stand up to the international community that emphasises that any return of refugees must be part of a comprehensive political solution stipulated by the UN Security Council Resolution 2254?
The list of supporters of the Syrian revolution has begun to shrink over time, under the shadow of the schizophrenia experienced by the political class of this revolution and the regional connections of many of its military leadersEva J. Koulouriotis
In short, the coming months before the elections in Türkiye will make it clear whether the orientation towards the Assad regime is serious or not. But there is a bitter truth that is beginning to become more and more clear. The list of supporters of the Syrian revolution has begun to shrink over time, under the shadow of the schizophrenia experienced by the political class of this revolution and the regional connections of many of its military leaders.
Will the restoration of relations between Ankara and Assad be the beginning of the end of the revolution? Or will it be the spark to revive it again?