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Erdogan reassures Syrian rebels but says Turkey open to talks with Assad

The Turkish president also ruled out a potential withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria in the near future, citing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Armed men drive in the back of a pick up truck during protests against Turkey in al-Bab, in the northern Syrian opposition held region of Aleppo on July 1, 2024. A man was killed after and Turkish forces clashed in Syria's Ankara-controlled northwest, a war monitor said, in demonstrations sparked by violence against Syrians in Turkey a day earlier. (Photo by Bakr ALKASEM / AFP) (Photo by BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images)

ANKARA — Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sought on Tuesday to assure Turkish-backed Syrian armed opposition groups following clashes in northern Syria that left seven dead, but he also insisted that potential dialogue with the Assad government in Syria could proceed in line with Ankara's approach. 

“We continue to improve our relations with all actors in our region, starting with our neighbors,” Erdogan said in a televised speech after a cabinet meeting in Ankara. “But in this process, we will not fail anyone who has trusted us, taken refuge in us and acted together with us," he added.

Turkey “is not and will not be a country that fails its friends.”

His remarks came after deadly protests in pro-Turkish rebel-held areas in northern Syria in the last 48 hours. Unprecedented armed clashes between Turkish forces and some armed demonstrators could threaten Ankara's interests in that region. The protests followed anti-immigrant riots in central Turkey on Sunday, during which an angry mob burned down dozens of Syrian-owned shops and vandalized vehicles. 

But analysts believe the anger has been simmering within Turkish-backed Syrian groups over positive signals Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have sent in the past year regarding the resumption of stalled high-level talks between Ankara and Damascus. Ankara has been backing Syrian armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and controls a large chunk of territories with opposition groups along the Turkey-Syria border.

At least seven people were killed during the clashes according to the UK-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Al-Monitor hasn’t been able to confirm the toll independently.

“Our intelligence units are carrying out very meticulous efforts together with their partners across the [Syria] border,” Erdogan said in a bid to identify the “dirty hands” behind the incidents on both sides of the border.

He also pledged not allow Syrians to be targeted in Turkey. “Public order is the red line of our country. We do not allow this line to be crossed under any pretext.”

Videos of Syrian demonstrators chanting anti-Turkey slogans and vandalizing the Turkish flag on social media early Monday triggered a new wave of anti-immigrant protests in several provinces Monday night, including in Istanbul as well as Hatay and Sanliurfa along the Syrian border. Some protesters were seen attacking Syrians in fresh videos shared on social media. Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced earlier Tuesday that 447 people have been detained after the riots. Turkey is home to nearly 3.2 million Syrians, according to official figures.

Northern Syria’s rebel-held territories had seen similar angry protests in 2022 during the launch of the Russian-mediated direct talks between high-level Turkish and Syrian officials. The talks failed as the Syrian government pressed for Turkish forces’ withdrawal from the country.

Speaking on Tuesday, Erdogan said Turkey ruled out any withdrawal in the near term from the war-torn country, reiterating his country’s concerns that the power vacuum from such a move could be filled by US-allied Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara deems a threat to its national security.

“When the threat of separatist terror is completely destroyed, we will of course do our part,” Erdogan said. “No one should expect us to watch the developments from aside while the terrorist organization is carrying out a new provocation every day,” he added.

Turkey equates the Kurdish-led SDF with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been waging an armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984. The SDF is a major ally of the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State in some parts of north and eastern Syria.

The resumption of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus is expected to be discussed in a planned meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana on Wednesday and Thursday. Russia, the main international backer of the Syrian government, along with Iran, has long been pushing for Turkish military withdrawal from Syria.