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Factors to change Turkish policy towards Syria

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on January 10 that he could meet with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in early February.

Such a meeting would mark the highest-level talks between Ankara and Damascus since the Syrian war began in 2011 and signal a rapprochement between the two countries.

This meeting is preceded by several movements in which Moscow has been most interested.

After several talks between Ankara and Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin convinced Erdogan to talk to Damascus.

Russia is quite clear that it is able to influence Turkish decision-making at this moment. The first reward that Turkey received from Russia was the grain agreement with Ukraine, which allowed grain to be sent from Ukraine through Türkiye to countries in the Middle East and Africa.

Although Türkiye continues to aid Ukraine militarily and sell drones to it, it has not respected the sanctions imposed on Russia and has yet to ratify the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO.

After Türkiye improved relations with the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan is trying to get closer to Egypt. The next step will be Syria.

Initially, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior figures. Later, the first ministerial-level meeting was held in December 2022 in Moscow, where Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with Ali Mahmoud Abbas, the Syrian Defense Minister.

Shortly thereafter, the Turkish Foreign Minister announced that the second ministerial level meeting between foreign ministers will be held in the second half of January. Due to the following disagreements, this meeting was postponed to the beginning of February, with the presence of the Russian foreign minister.

The friendship between Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad was severed 12 years ago, after the start of the civil war in Syria when Erdogan insisted on Assad’s removal from power before considering the restoration of relations between the two countries.

The pressure for the normalization of relations comes on the one hand from Moscow, which does not want and has prevented any attempt by Türkiye for airstrikes in the north of Syria since 2019. For Russia, it is important that Assad completes the restoration of control over the entire Syrian territory .

It should not be forgotten that the threat of US sanctions hangs over Türkiye, with a decision by the Trump administration in 2019, if it will launch a military operation against the regions controlled by the YPG in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s goal is to create a border cushioning zone of 30 km wide, populated by Arabs.

Another circumstance that has changed in the Turkish panorama and pushes Erdogan towards relations with Assad is the pressure of its public opinion regarding the presence of Syrian refugeesThe refugees have become a source of conflict with Turkish citizens who blame them for taking jobs and are partly responsible for the country’s economic crisis.

The normalization of relations with Assad is seen as an opportunity for their return based on an agreement between the two countries, even though the Lebanese and Jordanian experience shows the opposite.

But with Turkey in an economic crisis, with rising inflation, the strong fall in the value of the lira, and the promises of the opposition parties to solve the refugee issue by normalizing relations with Assad, Erdogan does not have many choices left.

In this scenario, the winner is undoubtedly Bashar al-Assad. It manages to have Russian control over Erdogan in order not to suffer a fourth invasion by Türkiye in the north of the country, and by normalizing relations with Erdogan, it weakens the Syrian opposition, which until now has found on Erdogan its main support.

Not to mention the strong legitimacy that Assad’s figure would receive after the normalization of relations with Turkey. This would be a further political victory after the opening of the embassies of the United Emirates and Bahrain.

Senior officials in several Arab states are pushing to reinstate Syria’s membership in the Arab League, including Algeria, which will host an upcoming League summit in March. Syria is already set to host an Arab energy conference in 2024.

And recently, another conditioning circumstance for Türkiye has been the lack of European support for Turkey and the US’s inability, or unwillingness, to influence the Syrian conflict and seriously address Turkish security issues regarding the YPG.

Regarding the Syrian refugees, the Turks felt used by the Europeans, since the EU never implemented many of the aspects of the agreement that was made regarding the permanence of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, starting from the liberalization of visas for Türkiye, or funds further.

According to various Arab media reports, the three countries (Türkiye, Syria and Russia) have agreed in principle that all Turkish forces withdraw from Syrian territory, to be replaced by Syrian units, together with militias loyal to the regime.

These reports have not yet been officially confirmed, but if they are true, detailed agreements should follow.

Washington does not seem to be keen on such an agreement. But as it has happened so far, maintaining the status quo in northern Syria in defense of the interests of the Kurdish allies in the war against ISIS seems to still have priority.

The Iranian foreign minister stated that he was “very satisfied” with the December talks between Ankara and Damascus, but the fact is that Iran has been excluded from all talks regarding Syria between Moscow and Türkiye.

Despite the ties with all three countries involved and the military assistance it provides to Russia in its war with Ukraine, Tehran has never been included in the talks and Moscow continues to allow Israel to attack Iranian targets on Syrian territory.

It seems that the maxim attributed to Lord Palmerston “We have no eternal allies and no permanent enemies. Our interests are eternal and permanent, and these interests it is our duty to pursue”, applies to anyone at any time.