Turkey-Syria: Normalization at what price?

Published November 2nd, 2022 - 06:27 GMT
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters protest
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters protest against a Turkish proposal for reconciliation between the Syrian government and the opposition, in rebel-held Aleppo province, 12 August 2022 (AFP)

Since the beginning of the establishment of Turkey and the independence of Syria in the first half of the 20th century, relations between the two countries have been full of tension and cooperation and political, security, border, and geopolitical differences.

After years of disagreement, Turkey-Syria's historical closeness was formed in the first decade of the 2000s, but in 2011, severe tension arose between Ankara and Bashar al-Assad's government. In the past decade, various factors have kept relations tense. But it seems that Turkey's approach in Syria is changing to normalization.

Apart from the short meeting of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal  Mekdad  on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in October 2021, it seems that the process of talks between security, political and diplomatic officials of the two countries has expanded. In the past months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown conciliatory words and approaches toward the normalization of relations with Syria in several cases.

Goals Turkey pursues to reduce tension, moving towards normalization
Economic interests: In fact, the economic cost of the continuation of the dark relations between Turkey and Syria is heavy. While the state of Turkey's economy is not very favorable, the multiple economic costs of Turkey's current approach in Syria have been enormous. Ankara hopes to improve Turkey's economic situation by implementing reforms until the 2023 elections in Turkey.

Turkey had previously become one of Syria's important foreign trade partners, and after 2011, Ankara invested a lot in the north of Syria to create infrastructure, create industrial areas, etc. In fact, with the process of normalization, Turkey can gain economic privileges from Damascus and develop business-economic relations and prevent the loss of its economic interests in northern Syria.

Geopolitical and political motivations: Turkish foreign policies in the Arab world have been established on key elements such as cooperation, participation, respect for sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. This is while, previously, some Arab actors accused Turkey of "colonial behavior" through its military presence in Syria. It seems that to eliminate the charge of occupying Arab lands, Turkey is now trying to show that it does not have an eye on Syrian territory.

In addition, Turkey's more pragmatic foreign policy has sought to repair relations with regional players such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Also, while some of the former Arab actors and opponents of Assad are normalizing their relations with Syria, the pressure on Ankara has also increased and Ankara does not want to remain indifferent.

Now, along with Turkey's attitude towards Europe and Turkey's western allies, it seems that Turkey's foreign policy’s new approach in Syria is focused on reducing tension and also reducing its responsibility (especially regarding refugees). In fact, due to the importance of developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arab world, the crisis in Ukraine, etc., Ankara's de-escalation of tension in its relation with Damascus can prevent Syria from becoming more dependent on Turkey's foreign rivals and opponents.

In another dimension, Russia, and Iran (two allies of Syria) have encouraged Ankara's reconciliation with Damascus. Moscow strongly seeking this reconciliation at the summits of Tehran and Sochi and even is eager to host the meeting of the foreign ministers of Ankara and Damascus.
Also, according to Tehran, Turkey's security concerns in Syria can be solved through "dialogue and peaceful means". Also, the fear of expanding Iran's influence in Syria in the context of the reduction of Russia's presence will distance Turkey from the Middle East. From this point of view, reducing Ankara's tension with Damascus can be a solution to reduce the possible risk of extensive cooperation between Damascus, Syrian Kurds, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iran against Turkey.

While the Syrian opposition groups have not been able to make any progress in terms of discipline and have wide differences, the Syrian National Army (SNA) is weaker than what was imagined. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the most powerful Sunni rebel group in Syria. In the meantime, Turkey does not want to continue to be known as the only main supporter of the Syrian opposition. In fact, Ankara is now trying to enter into reconciliation talks between the opposition groups and the government of Bashar al-Assad by normalizing relations. In addition, by following the normalization process, Turkey can partially defend the rights of the Syrian Turkmen and provide the possibility of their safe return to Syria.

Reducing security challenges, especially challenges posed by the Kurds: Almost a third of the Syrian territory is still under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But the independent or autonomous Kurdish structure in Syria is one of the main security threats to Turkey. Although Turkey has managed to reduce this risk to a great extent, it has become a problem and there is a possibility of its flare-up in the future.
While Turkey has tried many times to expand its influence in the east of the Euphrates, Ankara's plan to expand the security zone 30-40 km from the border inside Syria is facing the opposition of many powers. Therefore, reducing the tension with Damascus can narrow the field for the PKK and the Syrian Kurds and prevent the Syrian Kurds from approaching Syria or legitimizing an autonomous government such as one in northern Iraq in northern Syria and its influence inside Turkey. On the other hand, ISIS has recently renewed its activities in the northeast of Syria. Cooperation between the two countries can partially prevent the re-emergence of ISIS.

Solving the refugee crisis and winning the 2023 elections: Apart from the Syrian internally displaced population living in northern Syria, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is about 3-4 million people. They have imposed a lot of costs on the country.

In fact, drafting a plan to return Syrian refugees to Syria can be an antidote to opposition attacks until the 2023 elections. But providing a safe return for Syrian refugees is unrealistic due to a lack of security. In fact, Ankara is trying to find a way for the safe return of Syrian refugees to Syria with the cooperation of Damascus, returning their properties, not issuing judicial rulings for them, and even demographic changes in the borders for the benefit of Turkey.

The Justice and Development Party has been in power for nearly 20 years. However, reducing the party’s popularity in recent polls, and considering the possibility of the party's defeat in the elections of June 2023 in Turkey, has somehow influenced the change of policy towards Syria. Also, the Turkish opposition has been calling for a change in approach and relations with the Damascus government for a long time.

Some in the opposition have defended Assad and continue to do so. They used anti-refugee sentiments (the majority of Turks want Syrians to return to Syria) and say that Turkey's problems are related to refugees. Some consider the reduction of tension with the Syrian government to be useful in dealing with the threat of PKK. In the meantime, Ankara is trying to destroy the cards of the opposition by pursuing the normalization process with Damascus.

Obstacles and prospects of changing Turkey's approach towards Damascus

Parts of the Syrian opposition are pessimistic about the normalization process and oppose Turkey's reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad's government and consider it a stab in the back with unpredictable results. Syrian Kurds are also worried that the rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara will cost them their elimination.

It seems that the demands of the Assad government from the process of normalizing relations between Syria and Turkey are to immediately stop Turkey's hostile actions against Damascus, end the occupation of the land, stop supporting armed groups, stop water cuts, regain control of Damascus over Idlib province, control the crossings and the commercial route, Turkey's support for the lifting of sanctions against Syria and etc.

Although the normalization of relations between Turkey and Syria has various consequences and can have a wide impact on the geopolitics of the region, it is difficult to completely return the relations between Syria and Turkey to before 2011. In fact, despite extensive meetings of intelligence officials, negotiations at the security level, hopes for diplomatic talks and foreign ministers of the two countries, and even a meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad, it is more difficult to access the main security obstacles and requests.

Turkey may not put much more emphasis on the comprehensive political solution in Syria, but it insists on controlling or stabilizing the security of the border area and clearing the Kurdish areas from the PKK. In the meantime, the progress of the normalization process depends on confidence-building measures and comprehensive bilateral guarantees. In this situation, perhaps important steps will be taken in relations until the Turkish elections, but the variety of challenges, the role of numerous domestic and foreign actors, and the need to build a platform will prevent the achievement of all goals.

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