Turkish-Syrian Rapprochement: Rhetoric and Motivations
During a routine press conference on 12 August, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, casually mentioned a brief discussion he had had with Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian Foreign Minister, on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Movement meeting in October 2021. A few days later, President Erdogan denied that Turkey had territorial claims in Syria and reiterated the need for continual dialogue between the two states. For the first time since the suspension of diplomatic relations in August 2011, Turkish officials openly expressed willingness to reengage with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in order to reinforce border security and facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their hometowns.
At first glance, Ankara’s new intentions toward Damascus may appear to be an extension of its recent de-escalatory efforts with previous regional foes and former antagonists. However, the case of Syria is different and more complex. First, the Turkish Army controls large swathes of territory in northern Syria. Second, Turkey is engaged in state-building efforts in northern Aleppo, providing education, healthcare, security and essential services. Third and most importantly, Ankara’s perception of a threat emanating from the autonomous Kurdish-dominated administration in north-eastern Syria remains very real. Unlike other regional de-escalation efforts, the latest evolution in Turkey’s Syria policy is triggered by the strength of the Kurdish threat in northern Syria and questions about the future of Syrian refugees in Turkey, both of which will be crucial issues in the upcoming Turkish presidential election in June 2023.
Taming The Kurds
Turkey has never made a secret of it. Its armed forces are in Syria to prevent the formation of a Kurdish pseudo-state and to eventually eliminate the territorial presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates. All three military operations targeting the group in Syria took place after the détente with Moscow. All three necessitated coordination with Russia and exploitation of US indifference or a tacit ‘orange light.’ Geographically, the remainder of the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD – the PKK’s Syrian offshoot) territory of direct interest to Turkey spans four distinct areas: the Tall Rifat enclave, which is under Russian protection; Manbij, which is under US political and Russian physical protection; the Kobane area including Ain Issa, which is in a situation similar to Manbij; and the Qamishli area and its surrounding oil fields, which is under US direct physical protection. Ankara’s interest in pushing the PYD out of these areas is in this same order.
For a long time, Moscow has exploited Ankara’s security concerns in northern Syria to obtain political concessions from Turkey in exchange for allowing its army to conduct military operations in Syria. The abandonment of regime change in Damascus, the initiation of the Astana/Sochi process and the Syrian opposition being forced to participate in the Constitutional Committee with the Syrian government are all manifestations of Ankara’s willingness to accommodate Moscow. Nevertheless, Russia has insisted on formalising the ongoing but indirect dialogue between the two neighbours and moving beyond technical security talks to diplomatic reconciliation and normalisation.
In the relational dynamics between Damascus and Ankara, only one topic has the potential to overcome their many other differences: ending the territorial authority of the PYD. From Assad’s point of view, resolving the Kurdish issue without the intervention of Ankara is a better option as it allows Syria to keep playing this card against its neighbour. However, the ongoing direct negotiations with the Kurds have not yet yielded positive results, and the PYD, feeling strong because of its association with the Americans, refuses to offer concessions that would otherwise strip it of all the gains it has obtained since 2014. Alternatively, Damascus is now less resistant to seeking Ankara’s assistance, albeit intermittently, either to take over the PYD’s territory by force or to nudge it in the ‘right’ direction.
On its part, Ankara is aware that Damascus lacks the will and the capacity to eliminate the PYD. Nevertheless, what little it can obtain by forcing the regime’s hand over the Kurds is welcome, as long as Turkey maintains its ability to intervene in northern Syria. To this end, Russia often invokes the 1998 Adana Protocol to formalise Turkish military incursions in Syria. Russia’s proposal has not been entirely rejected by the Turks, who mostly remain silent on the matter, but its activation raises three concerns with no clear solutions.
First, there is the issue of prior coordination of incursions with Damascus, a step that demands approval by the Syrian government before any attack is launched. Second, there is the question of the depth of operations. The agreement stipulates that Turkey only has a right to enter 5 km into Syrian territory. Ankara is seeking to increase this to at least 30 km. Third is the period during which the Turkish Army is allowed to stay in Syria. Ankara wishes to extend this and install a safe zone in the areas it currently controls. It is difficult to envisage a Turkish retreat before these concerns are adequately resolved, and negotiations on bringing Syria and Turkey closer together on these issues have already started.
From Ankara’s point of view, at least in this stage, its motivation for re-engaging with the Assad regime is less influenced by geopolitical requirements than the need to maintain a nationalist discourse, which is deemed indispensable for Erdogan to win the presidential election in June 2023. Indeed, immigration and Syrian refugee issues have been adopted by the Turkish opposition (except the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)) as the cornerstone of its foreign policy agenda and electoral campaign to overthrow Erdogan. Being engaged in a fierce rhetorical battle to win the status of the party best positioned to resolve these issues, the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government has moved forward and put a radical Syrian refugee refoulement plan in place.
In May 2022, Erdogan unveiled a plan to return a million Syrian refugees to their country within a year. A month later, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that as many as 503,150 Syrians had “voluntarily” returned to their homes in Syria. To boost the number of returnees, the Turkish government has adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding any irregularities in applying or maintaining the temporary protection status of Syrian refugees. It has stopped issuing new residence permits to new Syrians arriving and considerably increased the requirements for long-term Syrian residents to renew work and residence permits. Any foreigner, including Syrians, who does not meet these requirements is susceptible to compulsory and immediate refoulement to northern Syria. To accommodate the potential return of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to Idlib and northern Aleppo, the Turkish Agency for National Disasters (AFAD) has accelerated the construction of thousands of new housing units in the region.
However, these measures are deemed insufficient to execute the ‘Voluntary and Safe Refugee Return’ plan. Many Syrian refugees are not from areas under the control of the opposition, and hence Turkey, and the primary urban settlements, infrastructure and work opportunities, despite the destruction, remain in areas under the control of Damascus. More than ever, a new belief is spreading through the administration in Turkey. Initially promoted by the main opposition parties, the prospect of an extensive programme to return Syrian refugees requires safe conditions to be established in regime-held territories and hence dialogue with the authorities.
Indeed, the Turkish opposition has long blamed Erdogan’s hostile policies toward Assad for the influx of refugees. The opposition’s main agenda for tackling the perceived immigration problem consists of two parts, forcing refugee returns and reconciliation with Damascus. What the government has proposed so far is a mere implementation of the opposition’s promises ahead of the election, thus robbing them of their central promises to the populace. However, the level of commitment to this new hardened rhetoric varies. Whereas the authorities have tightened their grip on the Syrian presence at home, very few in the government believe that a breakthrough with Assad on the refugees returning is likely to happen any time soon. For the perceivable future, only resolving outstanding security issues can be the basis for dialogue between Ankara and Damascus.
Challenges and Obstacles
On paper, Syria is in a weaker position than Turkey. However, Damascus has little to lose compared with Ankara if this diplomatic track is effectively followed. This bolsters Syria’s negotiating stance and could eventually lead it to obtain more concessions from Turkey than otherwise. Both parties have clearly and openly communicated their demands. Whereas Ankara is pressed by domestic and security needs to engage with Damascus, the latter is mostly motivated by potential gains. That said, Turkey is still in possession of assets it would never hand over to Syria except at a reasonable cost. This attitude is unlikely to change regardless of the party in charge of the government in Ankara.
Besides Syria’s questionable capacity or will to defeat the PYD in northern Syria, there are also considerable doubts about its motivation to welcome back Syrian returnees. First, Damascus has security concerns. Many youths have been exposed to more personal liberty and democratic space abroad, and the authorities would always suspect them of potential troublemaking or even loyalty to Ankara. Second, Syria has no jobs to offer the returnees. Even though Damascus could extort aid in exchange for their return from the regional and international community, the government also knows that the appetite for increasing international assistance is meagre. Third, Damascus does not wish to lose the impact of millions of dollars in remittances sent from Turkey to Syria every month. In addition to commission and relief for hundreds of thousands of families, these remittances are one of the few last sources of hard currency for the state.
Finally, Iran does not perceive any potential Turkish-Syrian rapprochement positively. Being engaged in regional rivalry with Ankara in Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus and even the Arab Gulf countries, Tehran views such an arrangement as a precursor to a more substantial Turkish presence in the rest of Syria. First, several Syrian decision-makers and bureaucrats are growing restless about possible growing Iranian influence while Russia diverts its attention to Ukraine. Iranians are aware of these sentiments, and they have not forgotten the extent of Ankara’s clout in Damascus before 2011. Second, thanks to its large refugee population and regional politics, Turkey also enjoys considerable sentimental capital among various Syrian communities. Compared to Tehran, Ankara has more significant influence in urban and Sunni rural areas. Third, despite the official boycott of Turkish products in regime-controlled areas, Turkey remains Syria’s most significant trade partner. The appeal, price, quality and variety of Turkish products are superior to their Iranian counterparts. It will only be a question of time before Turkish companies take over the Syrian economy if the right conditions materialise.
Indeed, Iran has many reasons to object to any rapprochement between the two neighbours and will not waste any chance to spoil any efforts leading to normalising their relations. In June 2022, at the height of Turkish threats to launch a new operation against PYD positions in Tall Rifat, Iranian proxies quickly deployed their forces in the vicinity of the town. In official meetings between Turkish and Iranian officials, the latter always demand that Turkey withdraws from Syria and respects its territorial integrity. Moreover, despite all the difficulties, Iran continues to engage with the PKK and PYD in various diplomatic ways and constantly pushes for their reconciliation with Damascus.
Nevertheless, the newly initiated diplomatic track between Ankara and Damascus is irreversible. Both countries have crossed an imaginary line and overcome the previously perceived taboo of direct dialogue. What is left to accomplish is more than what has been achieved so far, but it is a question of modalities and timing that remains blurry. For Damascus, there is the additional question of who to agree with in Ankara. Therefore, it is safe to assume that no significant advances will be made before June 2023.
This project is funded by the European Union and Germany as part of the Syria Peace Initiative implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Views and opinions expressed in our publications are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent those of donors, GIZ, or European University Institute.