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Analysis

As Erdogan woos Assad, is Turkey-Syria reconciliation rhetoric or reality?

While the Turkish president has signaled he’s open to mending fences with his Syrian counterpart, the path to reconciliation is full of pitfalls.
This combination of file photographs created on July 7, 2024, shows Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) in Ankara on May 29, 2023, and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on July 16, 2023.

After a protracted pause, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has revived efforts to mend fences with the man he long labeled a “murderer,” Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. His opening pitch came on June 28 after performing Friday prayers. “There is no reason to not reestablish ties with Syria. We have no intention to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs,” Erdogan told reporters, unequivocally asserting that Ankara no longer sought Assad’s overthrow.

The Turkish leader upped the ante on July 6 during a flight back from Germany, saying he was ready to “socialize en famille” with the Assads “as we did in the past.”

“The moment that Bashar al-Assad takes a step to improve relations with Turkey, we will display the same approach,” Erdogan told reporters on board the presidential plane. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, were involved in helping to arrange a potential meeting. “We are going to extend our invitation. Inshallah, with this invitation we hope to restore Turkish-Syrian relations to their previous level. Our invitation could come at any moment,” Erdogan said.

“These are groundbreaking comments. This is Erdogan’s most radical overture to date,” said Behlul Ozkan, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University who has published extensively on Turkey’s Syria policy. Public resentment toward Syrians briefly turned to mass violence in late June, leading to unprecedented anti-Turkish protests and attacks on Turkish military bases in northwestern Syria. The financial cost of occupying around 10% of Syrian territory — an area twice the size of Lebanon — amid chronic fiscal woes is becoming unsustainable. Meanwhile, Turkey’s unremitting efforts to collapse the US-protected and Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), deemed an existential threat because of its ties to Kurdish rebels fighting the Turkish military, have proved fruitless thus far.

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