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Fledgling Turkish-Syrian dialogue faces bumpy road ahead

Ankara and Damascus need to moderate their positions to avoid a collision in their quest for normalization.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Ankara’s bid to normalize ties with Damascus has advanced to the level of ministerial talks, but an array of stumbling blocks remain that could derail the fledgling dialogue unless both sides moderate their positions. 

The diplomatic U-turns of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are often attributed to the stumbles of his regional policies, but his political instincts and the maneuvering ability they bring him should not be overlooked. Wary of the rising political cost of staying out of the normalization trend in the region, he pursued rapprochement with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Cairo before turning to the Syrian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin had sought to coax him to mend fences with Damascus ever since the launch of the Astana process and is now skillfully offering him incentives to go ahead.

Yet, many aspects of Erdogan’s calculus remain unknown. What are his actual expectations from the normalization process as he faces a tough reelection race in the spring amid economic turmoil and rising popular discontent with the Syrian refugees? How committed is he to meeting Damascus’ conditions? Will he pull the plug on allied Syrian rebels or will he use them as a bargaining chip until the last moment? Does he take the jihadi threat abutting Turkey’s borders seriously? And is he determined to surmount US objections and sanctions along the way?

Even just breaking the ice with Damascus might benefit Erdogan in the elections, given that nearly 60% of the Turkish public supports dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the hope that restoring ties will facilitate the return of the refugees. Peace with Damascus has been an election pledge of the opposition, so at the very least, Erdogan has now stripped them of a major trump card. But few could say with certainty if he has made an irreversible choice to normalize ties or sees the process merely as an election investment. Hence the mistrust in Damascus. 

If it is all about reelection, Erdogan could make do with several steps:

  • reopening the border crossing between the Turkish town of Yayladagi and government-controlled Kassab in northwestern Syria
  • organizing the return of several convoys of refugees
  • starting talks on updating the 1998 Adana Accord on security cooperation with Syria and presenting them as a move toward partnership with Damascus to materialize the safe zone free of Kurdish forces that he has vowed to establish
  • agreeing to the deployment of more Syrian government forces to areas where the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdish-led Democratic Forces (SDF) are present, adapting the more docile allied rebels to the new situation
  • withdrawing some Turkish troops from Syria, even if only for show, and some broad commitments to the reconstruction of Syria

Taking a share from reconstruction projects in Syria is an essential carrot for Erdogan in the normalization effort, so he might preserve his willingness to advance the process after the polls in case he wins reelection. 

Similarly, Assad needs to focus on objectives that will justify his own U-turn. In a meeting in Damascus Thursday, the Syrian president told Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev that the trilateral talks between Turkey, Syria and Russia that began with a meeting of defense ministers in late December “should be coordinated between Syria and Russia in advance in order to be fruitful and produce tangible results sought by Syria, based on the national principles to end the occupation and stop support of terrorism,” according to the Syrian readout of the meeting. 

In other words, Assad reiterated his preconditions that Turkey should withdraw its troops from Syria and end support to armed rebels — two fundamental points of contention that could derail the rapprochement. Still, Assad might choose to bet on a change in Erdogan’s position, counting on Putin’s guarantees. He has a number of good reasons to give the talks a chance, which can be summarized as follows: 

  • Assad cannot afford to sabotage Putin’s strategy, which has gradually eroded Erdogan’s hard line during the Astana process. And the Russian strategy has set Turkish-Syrian normalization as a key objective.
  • Turkey’s partnership with Russia has helped the Syrian government regain control in the Damascus countryside, eastern Aleppo, Quneitra, Hama and Humus. In turn, the increased Turkish control on the ground has impeded the recapture of other areas, and the removal of that hurdle depends on Turkish-Syrian normalization. 
  • The armed groups holding sway in Idlib and elsewhere are expected to lose their hold once Turkey pulls the plug on them. Moreover, they would then become a problem for Turkey itself. 
  • Syria’s economic recovery would be much easier with a mighty neighbor like Turkey on board. Having served as a lifeline for Russia in the Ukraine war, Turkey could play a similar role for Syria. This, of course, would require Erdogan to soften Washington, using arguments such as that Turkey could help push back Iran, influence Damascus’ political posture and even revive its mediation for Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. 
  • A potential security arrangement with Ankara could leave the US-backed Syrian Kurds with no option but to submit to Damascus.
  • Turkish-Syrian reconciliation could also lead to the US withdrawal from Syria. 
  • With the United States out, the Arab tribes that joined the SDF relying on US guarantees could grow more willing to change sides. 
  • Damascus needs alternative partners to balance Russia and limit the influence of Iran so as to broaden its political wiggle room.

Such favorable assessments may prepare the ground for talks but the path to reconciliation remains littered with minefields. 

First of all, Erdogan’s record of unpredictable pragmatism and Turkish rhetoric flouting key Syrian demands have been detrimental to building confidence. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, for instance, has said that Turkish-controlled areas would be handed over to Damascus only after “political stability is achieved and everything is all right in the country,” while an adviser to Erdogan has called for Turkish control of Aleppo to ensure the safe return of refugees.

Damascus, for its part, refuses to treat the SDF and the YPG as terrorist groups, as Ankara would like it to do.

Turkey’s ongoing insistence on the creation of a safe zone 30 kilometers (18 miles) deep along the border — either by itself or in cooperation with Damascus — stands out as another minefield that could derail the peace train. 

According to the Syrian daily Al-Watan, Turkey agreed to a full withdrawal from Syria, the reopening of the crucial M4 motorway and the creation of several joint committees at the defense ministers’ meeting in Moscow, but the report has yet to be officially confirmed. 

Lastly, Ankara has kept repeating a goal that has long lost its relevance: that its Syrian allies, either armed or unarmed, should be part of a political transition in Damascus in line with Resolution 2254 of the UN Security Council. Syrian opposition groups have been protesting Ankara’s thaw with Damascus, while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadi outfit controlling much of Idlib, has stepped up attacks on government positions in an apparent bid to lure disgruntled rebels to its ranks. 

In sum, the parties are in for a bumpy ride, given Assad’s obstinacy and Erdogan’s calculating style. One might have to also factor in the deterrence of the US administration, which is readying to receive Cavusoglu next week ahead of his upcoming meeting with his Syrian and Russian counterparts in Moscow.

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