On 15 December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his government planned to schedule a tripartite mechanism with Russia to work toward Syrian-Turkish rapprochement.
Initially, he suggested the establishment of meetings between intelligence agencies, and defense and foreign ministries, to be followed by a meeting of the respective leaders. “I offered it to Mr Putin and he has a positive view on it,” the Turkish president was cited as saying.
In the past few months, Erdogan has displayed an increasing interest in meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he characterized as a “murderer” only a few short years ago.
Early signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus are already evident in multiple, ongoing meetings between their respective intelligence agencies.
Somer Sultan, a Turkish journalist residing in Syria, told The Cradle that recently the level of talks between intelligence services has been raised.
According to Sultan, one of the outcomes of these talks is the establishment of the 25th Special Mission Forces Division of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) – commonly known as the ‘Tiger Forces’ – on the Turkish-Syrian border in many areas evacuated by the US-backed Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
It also appears that – at least for now – Russia and the US have blocked a new Turkish ground offensive in Syria against SDF/YPG Kurdish militias, which Erdogan has been threatening to launch for several months.
Meeting of the US, SDF, and PUK
Two days before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his US counterpart Antony Blinken met on 22 December, an interesting meeting was held in Syria.
US General Matthew McFarlane, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader and the son of Jalal Talabani, Bafel Talabani, and SDF leader Mazloum Abdi participated in this meeting. During his visit to North Syria, Bafel Talabani also met with PYD co-leaders Asya Abdullah and Salih Muslim.
It is important to note that Turkiye has recently threatened the PUK-held Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, and accused the PUK of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group viewed as a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara.
So far, the US and Russia have managed to deter Turkiye from launching a ground incursion into Syria. However, a new Turkish security concept, “meeting and eliminating threats across borders,” continues in Iraq and Syria whereby PKK targets continue to be identified and eliminated.
Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin quotes a senior Turkish security officer as saying that Ankara has warned the US to stop escorting PKK/YPG elements in Syria. According to this officer, Turkiye has advised the US forces to affix a UN or US flag on their cars to avoid any friendly fire.
What does Turkiye offer?
Relations with Syria, its related refugee conundrum, and generalized economic crisis are among the most heated topics in Turkiye’s domestic politics. Indeed, several Turkish opposition parties have attributed the refugee problem as a direct consequence of Erdogan’s misguided Syrian policy – a popular view in Turkiye today.
Former Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Kamil Erozan, now a deputy of the opposition IYI (Good) Party, revealed to The Cradle that Turkiye has thus far not made any serious offer to the Syrian side.
“What the government says in public is the threat of YPG/PKK,” Erozan said. “But we, IYI Party, think that this is not enough. Idlib is the hotbed of terrorism and AKP (Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party) has not touched upon this topic during the negotiations yet.”
He believes that Erdogan does not have an exit strategy from Syria, and is biding his time on this issue until Turkiye’s next key elections in June 2023.
Erozan says that the IYI Party, as a potential ruling party after the elections, will seek to make direct contact with the Syrian government. “We wrote a letter to our foreign ministry about our intention to visit Syria and waited for a response until December 15. They did not respond and now we will try to contact Bashar al-Assad on our own,” he said.
If the Assad government accepts, Erozan said, then they are open for dialogue with Damascus even before the elections, at any time and in any place.
“When we are in power, we are going to raise the dialogue level in our negotiations,” Erozan claimed. He said that the most important point is to solve the urgent Syrian refugee question, and then the difficult issues about the PKK/YPG and Idlib.
When asked whether his party has a plan to withdraw Turkish troops from Syria, he said this could be negotiable. According to Erozan, the Erdogan government has itself not yet put the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from Syria on the table.
However, it is unclear whether the Syrian government would accept IYI’s offer — Somer Sultan thinks that the party’s offer would not satisfy Damascus “because IYI wants the Syrian government to accept an alliance against the PKK/YPG but for other terrorist organizations they want a ‘common approach.’ This is not acceptable for Syria.”
The view from Syria
A Syrian source with close ties to the government told The Cradle that in a closed meeting Assad assured his audience that he will not meet Erdogan prior to Turkiye’s elections.
However, according to Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, the Syrian president has also said that the level of dialogue between intelligence agencies will rise in the near future – which has, in fact, recently happened. Assad also said Syrians will continue to keep an eye open regarding the Turkish government’s intentions.
Editor-in-Chief of the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan and a close Assad confidante, Waddah Abdrabbo, wrote an editorial in a similar tone: “No pro bono gift for Erdogan.”
Abdrabbo said that the Syrians are waiting for a concrete step from Ankara. “Syrians want territorial integrity, end terrorism, and lifting sanctions,” he stressed.
Despite Erdogan’s overtures and Assad’s willingness to expand dialogue with Ankara, Syria is cautious about her neighbor’s intentions and does not intend to play a hand in Erdogan’s electoral ambitions.
For both Turkiye’s ruling AKP and its opposition, any possible Syrian-Turkish reconciliation process must include a settlement on the Syrian refugee problem. One of the ostensible reasons for all Turkish ground offensives into Syria after 2016 has been the safe repatriation of the Syrian refugees.
However, Erozan is doubtful about Assad’s intentions: “He may not accept all refugees to his country.” When reminded that Syrian refugees in Lebanon had already started to return, he stated that Lebanon is a different case.
IYI’s negotiation plans depend on Damascus’ signals. Last September, the party convened a “Migration Doctrine”conference and announced that through negotiations with the Syrian government and the participation of the EU, refugees will be able to return to Syria. If the plan does not go ahead, then Turkiye would take matters into its own hands and create a safe zone in Syria. It appears, on the surface, to be a carbon copy of Erdogan’s post-2016 policies.
While it is inevitable that high level negotiations will eventually take place between Syria and Turkiye, Damascus’ primary condition will always remain the withdrawal of Turkish troops. If a future Turkish government can view this condition as negotiable, things can rapidly improve on the rapprochement front.
For Syria, reclaiming territory from Turkiye, but also from the US-backed SDF, is of utmost importance. Securing Turkish cooperation against the SDF (and the US) would be a huge achievement for Damascus. However, the Syrian leadership evaluates the US presence in Syria as ephemeral. Therefore, cutting a deal with a powerful neighbor like Turkey is more important than to drive out American forces first.
Second, although the SDF poses a mutual threat for both countries, Syria and Turkiye have starkly different views on Islamist groups. Regaining Idlib, the northern Syrian governorate which remains the last bastion of extremist militants, is not just a question of territorial integrity for Syria – it also illustrates continued Turkish support for armed Islamist militias. Therefore, Ankara severing ties with those takfiri-salafist groups could provide an important basis for high level negotiations.
Whether the AKP or its opposition can provide this outcome is doubtful. Erdogan is not a reliable partner for Damascus for obvious reasons, but the opposition coalition also hosts some dubious figures, such as Erdogan’s former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a champion of the catastrophic Syrian war.
For now, both countries choose to maintain their mutual talks at a certain level, and it seems unlikely that the Syrian question will be resolved until after the Turkish elections.