Turkey Pulse

Turkish voices increasingly calling for dialogue with Assad

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Article Summary
Developments in Syria could force Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to swallow his antipathy to President Bashar al-Assad and establish some level of contact with him, as a growing number of Turks believe.

Turks remain glued to reports about the progress of the Turkish military campaign in northern Syria against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization that poses an existential threat to Turkey. Operation Olive Branch, launched Jan. 20, has sparked a growing debate on whether Ankara should make peace with Damascus so that it can more effectively attain its military and political objectives in northern Syria.

Opposition parties along with retired generals and analysts argue that cooperating with Damascus is the only way to ensure Turkey’s security interests along its long border with Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains adamantly opposed to talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, even though Ankara established low-level contacts with Damascus prior to launching its onslaught against the YPG in Afrin.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, told hundreds of delegates during his party’s general congress on Feb. 3 in Ankara that Turkey must establish contact with Damascus without further delay. “I want to make an open call here,” Kilicdaroglu said. “Contact the Syrian government. If Syria’s territorial integrity is to be retained, if the bloodshed is to be stopped, then there is the need to immediately establish ties with the Syrian state and government.” Kilicdaroglu, whose party has come out in support of Operation Olive Branch, was repeating what he and his party executives have been arguing for some time.

Meral Aksener, the leader of the newly formed Good Party, also supports this position. After Turkey launched its military offensive, she told reporters in Ankara that it was wrong to establish low-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus while at the same time giving the impression of harboring animosity toward the Assad regime. Aksener was referring to the recent revelation by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Turkey had established contacts with Damascus through Russian intermediaries prior to the military operation.

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Speaking publicly in Istanbul on Jan. 26, Yildirim had said that Turkey has no direct contacts with Damascus, but indicated that the existence of the regime could not be denied. “Given the point we have arrived at, the regime is a reality,” Yildirim said. “In other words, if we are to seek a solution in Syria by denying its existence, this chaos will continue for years. That is why the regime will be part of a solution.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that Damascus had been informed about Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria via a diplomatic note given to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul after the campaign began. 

Yildirim’s remarks appeared to contradict Erdogan, who declared Assad a “terrorist during a December visit to Tunisia. Erdogan also said, “It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?” 

Erdogan remains defiant and is angry with calls for him to make peace with Assad. He blasted Kilicdaroglu prior to flying to Rome on Feb. 4 on a state visit to the Vatican. “What kind of business is this?” Erdogan said in response to a question from reporters. “Here is a man who is heedlessly trying to bring us together with a man that caused the death of a million people.”

Having declared Assad a “murderer of his people” from the start of the Syrian crisis, it is evident that establishing a dialogue with him now would mean a loss of face for Erdogan. It would also leave Assad looking stronger by proving that Erdogan’s efforts to get rid of him had failed. Erdogan’s quandary, however, is that Ankara may have no choice in the end but to establish some contact with Damascus, even if it amounts to caving in to the devil in the eyes of many of his Sunni supporters.

Mehmet Acet, a columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, believes that there is no need for Ankara to heed Kilicdaroglu’s call. “Assad has become Russia’s puppet, so Ankara is able to get what it wants through the negotiations it maintains with Moscow,” Acet argued in a Feb. 5 article. He went on to maintain that even if Erdogan heeded the call, “Kilicdaroglu would not applaud him,” but badger him instead with jibes like “this is how you rub a man’s nose in the mud.”

Acet’s remarks suggest that domestic political considerations remain an important factor for Erdogan’s base of support with regard to Turkey’s involvement in Syria. Not all of Erdogan’s supporters, however, think like Acet anymore.

Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Safak, argued in November, “Turkey had to overcome its preoccupation with Assad.” Karagul said the main problem in Syria was no longer the question of Assad, but attempts to divide the country, a possibility that he said posed a much greater threat for Turkey.

Russia also poses an obstacle to Erdogan’s desire to see the back of Assad. Moscow would like Ankara and Damascus to come to terms, because this would not only contribute to securing Russian aims in Syria, but would also draw Turkey further from the United States, especially now that Washington has begun ratcheting up its anti-Assad discourse again.

Moscow reprimanded Erdogan in December, saying that his declaring the Syrian leader a terrorist “had no legal basis and was groundless.” Erdogan might become a victim of his own rhetoric in the end. His promise to clear all of Turkey’s borders with Syria of the YPG may force him to review his stance on Assad. Retired generals are among those who argue that the only way for the Turkish military to achieve this goal is to enable Damascus to regain control of its borders with Turkey.

Ilker Basbug, a former chief of the General Staff, told the daily Hurriyet in a recent interview that the “miracle solution,” as he called it, to the threat posed by the YPG, is to work with the Syrian regime and Russia and ensure that Damascus controls its border with Turkey.

Meanwhile, Al-Monitor’s Fehim Tastekin has underlined that Erdogan’s plan to resettle predominantly Sunni Syrians and Free Syria Army (FSA) fighters supported by Turkey in northern Syria may not sit well with Damascus. What fails to sit well with Damascus in this regard is also unlikely to sit well with Moscow. Many, not just in Russia but also in Turkey, believe that the FSA is comprised of Islamists and jihadis allied with groups the Syrian regime and the Russian military are fighting in Idlib.

The report that Syria has deployed new air defense systems in Aleppo and Idlib, with a view toward covering the airspace over northern Syria — where Turkey is conducting air operations — gains added significance at such a moment.

Writing for the opposition internet news portal Oda TV, retired Rear Adm. Turker Erturk said that the FSA consists of “jihadi and takfiri groups who cut [off] heads and eat human organs” and that cooperation with them would have disastrous results for Turkey. “What has to be done is to cooperate with the central government in Syria,” said Erturk, a former Naval Academy commander, echoing the views of a growing number of Turks.

Taha Akyol, a respected columnist for Hurriyet, argued that a policy predicated on seeing Assad go could end up leaving Turkey isolated at the Syrian negotiations. “Whether Turkey sits at the table that will determine the future of Syria having reconciled with Assad or as an enemy of Assad will make a great difference,” Akyol said.

The bottom line is that developments in Syria could easily force Erdogan to overcome his deep antipathy for Assad, and establish some level of contact with him. A growing number of Turks believe this is imminent.

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Found in: meral aksener, kemal kilicdaroglu, bashar al-assad, fsa, ypg, civil war, recep tayyip erdogan

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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