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Turkey Elections: A Kilicdaroglu election win could overhaul Syria policy

The opposition leader is seen as someone who would have more clout at the negotiating table with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially on migration and security issues in northern Syria.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu

If Kemal Kilicdaroglu beats incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the May 14 general elections, as many polls currently project, it would likely mark a strategic shift in Turkey’s policy toward Syria and relations between Ankara and the Bashar al-Assad government, experts tell Al-Monitor. 

Kilicdaroglu, a veteran politician who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has a narrow lead in the opinion polls against Erdogan, who faces his toughest re-election challenge since he came to power amid an economic crisis that has been worsened by deadly earthquakes. 

The 74-year-old former civil servant has been an outspoken critic of Erdogan’s policy in Syria, which has recently been welcomed back into the diplomatic fold after years of isolation by many Arab countries over its civil war. More than half a million have been killed in the 12-year conflict. 

Imdat Oner, a policy analyst at the Jack D. Gordon Institute, told Al-Monitor that Turkey's Syria policy will change under Kilicdaroglu. “Turkey’s Syria policy would largely depend on dialogue and diplomacy with Assad,” he said. “The opposition aims to partially withdraw from Syria to address the security situation and stabilize the region while ensuring the safety of border areas. This move will enable them to fulfill one of their key campaign promises, which is the return of Syrian refugees within two years.”

An end to 'Erdogan project'?

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, told Al-Monitor that Turkey's involvement in the Syrian civil war is largely seen as “an Erdogan project” to interfere with its neighbor’s affairs and overthrow the Assad regime. But, he added, "That's not going to happen, given Russia's support to Assad and how he has survived.”

The opposition priority now  is managing refugees from Syria, he said, which "requires a handshake with the Assad regime. I actually think Assad is more eager to shake Kilicdaroglu’s hand than Erdogan’s hand.” 

Turkey has taken in more than 4 million Syrian refugees, adding 5% to the country’s population.

Cagaptay pointed out that Turkey is becoming less welcoming of migrants. And some candidates, such as the far-right ATA alliance’s Sinan Ogan, are campaigning on anti-refugee platforms. The analyst believes candidates like Ogan could do well and take a sizeable chunk of votes.

“Kilicdaroglu’s priority will be discussing an end to the war in Syria with Assad, which will have some kind of an understanding on repatriation of refugees, in return for a deal on the YPG (People's Defense Units) being folded under the Assad regime," the analyst said. 

The YPG is a Kurdish armed group that established itself in northern Syria during the civil war before allying with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in the region. Turkey views the YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it has designated as a terrorist organization.

Cagaptay said if Erdogan wins the election, Assad could continue with the status quo of the gray zone in northern Syria where there is both a Turkish and a YPG presence, and Syrian refugees would stay in Turkey.

He said any deal Kilicdaroglu could make with Assad is unlikely to include the repatriation of refugees.

“In the end, not all Syrians will go back," Cagaptay said. "Nearly a million of them are born in Turkey. They’re kids, and they probably speak better Turkish than Arabic. Some are integrating; 90% won’t live in camps. They live in cities [and are] already part of neighborhoods, and many of them do not like an Assad-ruled Syria."

Jeffrey Mankoff, senior associate with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program, agrees that it will be easier for a Kilicdaroglu government to pursue some kind of normalization with Assad, and potentially in a way that addresses the overlapping concerns about border security and the Kurdish issue.

“I think he's going be constrained by what you might consider to be Turkish state interests," Mankoff said. "And there's still going to be a lot of concern about the presence of PKK-linked Kurdish entities on the Syrian side of the border.”

“But I think it would be easier for a government led by somebody like Kilicdaroglu to reach an agreement with Assad in a way that would sort of see the consolidation of Syrian state control over some of those areas, in a way that would address Turkish concerns about cross border instability or violence,” he added.

Mankoff thinks talk of a refugee deal is too optimistic despite Erdogan's and Kilicdaroglu's campaign promises. Kilicdaroglu can negotiate more easily than Erdogan, he said, "but it's going to be hard either way because these are people who've been traumatized to be outside of the country for years [and] who have no reason to trust Assad."

He added that it would be "enormously disruptive" to try and force refugees to go back.

"So I think this makes for good pre-election campaigning for both candidates because there is a kind of fatigue with the refugees in Turkey right now. But I think actually negotiating a deal, one, and then implementing it, two, is going to be challenging regardless of who's doing the negotiating on the Turkish side."

Cagaptay said if there was any deal involving Syrian refugees, the number being repatriated would just be “symbolic” in the short term, even if the situation in northern Syria stabilizes. 

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