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'Normalization' with Assad is the new normal in Turkey

Comments by Turkey's foreign minister hinting at normalization with Damascus drove hundreds of Syrians across Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria to stage demonstrations.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) listens on as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint press conference at al-Shaab palace in Damascus on Oct. 11, 2010.

The chorus of Turkish officialdom calling for engagement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is growing louder by the day. The moves are calculated to draw votes ahead of elections and weaken Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. They are backed by Russia as it seeks to drive wedges between Turkey and its Western foes.

On Monday, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s top coalition ally, said he considered the steps taken by Turkey regarding Syria to be “valuable and fortuitous.” Bahceli was responding to last week’s announcement by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that he had spoken, albeit briefly, with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal al-Mekdad, in Belgrade in October last year. Not only that, communication had resumed between their intelligence officials, Turkey’s top diplomat revealed.

Today, Cavusoglu thanked Bahceli for his support in an interview with private broadcaster NTV. “Any lasting solution in Syria is a political one. The regime and the opposition need to reach a compromise,” he said.

Hayati Yazici, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) who is counted among Erdogan’s most trusted lieutenants, chimed in with his own endorsement.

“Relations with Damascus could become direct and the level [of representation] could be upgraded,” Hayati contended in a statement today. Many interpreted his words to mean that a high-level official visit to Syria might be imminent.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, which has long advocated making peace with Assad, aired its approval.

Is Turkey about to throw its Sunni Syrian opposition proteges under the bus and make peace with the Syria leader they jointly sought to overthrow?

Such fears drove hundreds of Syrians across Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria to stage demonstrations in which they called the Turkish presence an occupation. “No reconciliation with the butcher,” they chanted. Two protestors were detained and handed over to Turkish custody for burning the Turkish flag. The act captured on camera ignited fury on the Turkish Twittersphere and panic among the millions of Syrian refugees inside Turkey who face mounting racist violence. “People are terrified; they are scared of being killed,” said Wafa Ali Mustafa, a Syrian journalist and activist whose father was “disappeared” in 2013 by the Assad regime.

Cavusoglu accused foreign and domestic “provocateurs” of twisting his words. He had called for “compromise,” not “peace,” between the Assad regime and the Sunni opposition, he insisted.

As pundits ponder the supposed difference, well-placed Turkish sources told Al-Monitor that efforts to engage with Damascus were being pursued with renewed vigor and the Kremlin’s support. “Iran, Russia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates — they are all part of these conversations,” one of the sources claimed.

There are multiple factors that make reconciliation with Assad, or talk of it at any rate, increasingly attractive. The most immediate is Erdogan’s own survival. Presidential and parliamentary elections are set to be held by June 18 next year. The Turkish economy, whose success for long years underpinned Erdogan’s own, is in a free fall. Anti-immigrant resentment is soaring. Random assaults on Syrians are growing common. The opposition says that as soon as it comes to power, it will “send the Syrians home.” Hence, normalization with Assad “is a must.” All of this is music to Turkish voters’ ears.

Erdogan is likely hoping to steal the opposition’s thunder by playing the same card. Admissions about contacts with the regime are no more than a political gambit, or so the opposition reckons.

Ziad Hajj Obeid, a commander of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) based in the northern Aleppo countryside, told Al-Monitor, “Turkey will not change its position toward the Syrian revolution. We communicated our fear of a Turkish rapprochement with the Assad regime to the Turkish officials. The Assad regime is our enemy and that of Turkey as well. The Turkish officials made it clear to us that Turkey will remain supportive of the Syrian revolution until meeting the demand of getting rid of the Assad regime.”

Mustafa Sejari, a prominent leader in the SNA’s political bureau who commutes between Turkey and the northern Aleppo countryside, said, “We do not believe that there will be any change in Turkey’s policy toward the revolutionary forces and the Syrian people. Our relationship with our brothers in Turkey is strong and deep.”

Their faith is misplaced. Erdogan is the master of U-turns, reaching out to Israel and Egypt after years of angry confrontation and shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after highlighting his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But none was quite as spectacular as his decision in 2016 under Russian pressure to let Aleppo fall to the regime, effectively renouncing Turkey’s bid to topple Assad and turning its opposition proxies on the Syrian Kurds instead.

Levent Gultekin, an Islamist turned liberal commentator, says Erdogan’s core base of pious Sunnis will adjust to such shifts with the utmost ease. “They will say, ‘If our leader is doing this, he knows what is doing; he is doing it for the good of our country,’” Gultekin told Al-Monitor.

In any case the Syrian opposition ultimately has little say. “What makes Syrians say Turkey won’t reconcile with the regime is their helplessness and despair,” Mustafa the activist told Al-Monitor.

It is no secret that the Kremlin has for some time sought to mend fences between Turkey and Assad. However, initial attempts failed largely because of Assad’s intransigence. Ibrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor of Saudi Arabia’s Asharq Al-Awsat and a prominent Syrian journalist who was forced to flee the country in 2013, told Al-Monitor, “Based on what I know, the Russians managed to have the Syrian and Turkish heads of intelligence, Ali Mamlouk and Hakan Fidan, meet more than once for security coordination.”

Hamidi added Putin wants now “to move relations to a political level” in order “to coordinate against the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies” who control the northeast of the country and the bulk of its oil and water resources. This was one of the top agenda items during Erdogan’s Aug. 5 summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Vladimir Putin.

Hamidi added that some countries like the United Arab Emirates that had already normalized relations with Assad “to put him in a stronger position against Erdogan and Iran” had shifted course in line with their own warming ties with Ankara. US and EU sanctions against the Assad regime are unlikely to ease any time soon. As such, Gulf funding could help lubricate a grand bargain between Assad and Erdogan, which might also help balance Iran’s influence in Syria, or so the thinking goes.

In July, Erdogan publicly asserted for the first time that he believed the United States needed to withdraw its forces from northeast Syria. To that point in time, Ankara’s formal position was that Washington should ditch the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and team up with Turkey and SNA factions against the Islamic State (IS) instead. Erdogan’s comments followed a meeting in Tehran with Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and its president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Turkey has been pressing the United States and Russia alike to greenlight another military assault against the SDF. But it's hit a wall. Washington refused, mainly on the grounds that this would detract from the fight against IS. The Kremlin wants to leverage the threat of a Turkish invasion to get the Syrian Kurds to cut their ties with the United States and throw in their lot with the regime.

At the same time, it's playing on Ankara’s fears that if it doesn’t hurry and make up with Assad first, the Kurds may well rekindle their old alliance with the regime and train their guns on Turkey as they did until 1998. That is when Ankara and Damascus buried the hatchet and formed a common cause against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey presents the fact that the SDF is staffed by Kurdish militants who fought within the PKK ranks as justification for its continued attacks against northeast Syria.

Ankara hopes that a similar agreement to the 1998 Adana Accords might be struck — but taking Syria’s new realities into account. However, Assad insists that until Turkey withdraws its troops from Syria, no meaningful progress can be made. He may well also be thinking that with opinion polls showing Turkish opposition candidates consistently in the lead, why should he do his nemesis, Erdogan, any favors before the elections? And what’s to say that once they are behind him, Erdogan won’t revert to support for the opposition?

Salih Muslim, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, which shares power in the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria, likened the attempts at reconciling Assad and Erdogan to a “forced marriage.” However, Muslim told Al-Monitor, “We have to take these moves seriously because the sides (Assad and Erdogan) are taking their orders from the same place — from Putin.” Muslim added, “The fact they are aligned against the Kurds is no surprise to the Kurds.”

Mustafa the activist concurred, saying, “I never really believed that Turkey was our ally. To me at least it did not take a lot of effort or intelligence to figure out that Turkey was definitely thinking about the PKK and the Kurds from the very beginning [of the Syrian conflict],” she said.

Washington’s silence in the face of the touted rapprochement has added to Kurdish unease. It has also said little of Turkey’s targeted assassinations of senior PKK and SDF figures inside northern Syria using armed drones. Today, yet another civilian perished — a 12-year-old in the border town of Kobani — in a Turkish drone strike. There were unconfirmed reports that several Syrian regime soldiers had also died in Turkish attacks on Kobani today.

“America neither relinquishes hold of the SDF nor does it defend the SDF. It is pursuing the worst possible policy,” a PKK militant in Iraqi Kurdistan speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor.

The State Department did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a doctoral student at Princeton University who has written extensively about and spent protracted spells in Syria since 2011, observes that whatever Ankara’s motives, reconciliation with Assad is something of a fantasy.

“What will block such a deal is the completely uncompromising position of the Syrian regime, which would be unwilling to give Turkey any guarantees on security and which is also incredibly weak militarily,” Tsurkov told Al-Monitor. “Even if it wanted to contain the PKK, it currently does not have the military capability to do so. And of course, any guarantees the regime may provide for the people in the northwest and northeast are meaningless.

Tsurkov continued, “The regime’s military and security will go after anyone who is perceived as an opponent in areas outside its control. Therefore, Syrians who live in these territories will attempt to flee and produce a massive exodus that will need to either be met with live ammunition on the border or lead to a massive refugee influx into Turkey.”

“This is something incredibly risky and would possibly be career-ending for the Turkish president,” Tsurkov observed.

Yet the status quo appears equally untenable. Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria costs around $2 billion annually, according to The Financial Times. The government says it spent at least $40 billion on 3.7 million-plus Syrians inside Turkey. The opposition claims the real figure spent on Syrians is closer to five times that amount. Meanwhile, the social toll of their presence is growing by the day. Ultimately, Turkey’s fears of the emergence of yet another Western- backed Kurdish statelet on its borders trumps all other concerns. As such, whether it’s through some deal with Assad or by going it alone, the one certainty is that Turkey will continue to do its best to avert such an outcome.

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