Turkey unlikely to follow trend of normalization with Syria
Since the Biden administration took office in Washington, a series of reconciliation efforts have started across the Middle East, as the crisis-ridden region’s countries recalibrate their policies. Following the January signing of the AlUla Declaration that ended the Gulf’s almost four-year-long rift with Qatar, another normalization process started between Turkey and Egypt after eight years of tense relations. Meanwhile, through Iraqi mediation, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced that they had begun direct talks that officials hope will diffuse the tensions between them.
The power dynamics in the region have started to shift again as the regional actors seem to be putting aside their differences and de-escalating years-old tensions. Syria also seems to have taken its share from this normalization atmosphere. In recent months, apart from Turkey, all the region’s countries have started to approach Damascus to varying degrees.
Iraq, which had called for a mechanism for dialogue between the influential states involved in Syria, last month announced that it plans to import natural gas via the country. Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar met his Syrian counterpart Bassam Touma and agreed on the possibility of transporting Egyptian gas to Iraq through Syria. The two ministers also talked about strengthening energy cooperation, holding joint training exercises, and sharing information. The meeting was a sign of the improving relations between Iraq and Syria.
Another of Syria’s neighbors, Jordan, last month reopened the Naseeb-Jaber border crossing to restore trade movement. In December 2018, Jordan’s King Abdullah stressed that “Jordan’s relations with Syria will soon return to what they used to be before.” Since then, there have been signs of improving relations between the two.
In March, prior to these two developments, Egypt called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, nearly 10 years after its membership was suspended. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said during the opening session of a March 3 meeting of the Arab League Council: “Syria’s return to the Arab League as a stable and active state would be vital for maintaining Arab national security.”
The regional actors seem to be putting aside their differences and de-escalating years-old tensions.
A few days later, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said: “Syria’s return to the Arab fold is essential and has nothing to do with who wants or who does not want it. It is a matter of public interest and the interests of Syria and the region.”
In fact, efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab fold started before the beginning of this year. As far back as 2018, Bashar Assad stated that Syria had reached a “major understanding” with Arab states after years of hostility. He didn’t mention the names of the countries, but he emphasized that they would soon be reopening their diplomatic missions in Syria.
The UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies at the end of 2018, while Kuwait has said it would reopen its mission in Damascus if there were agreement among the 22-member Arab League. In October last year, Oman sent an ambassador to Syria, becoming the first Gulf Arab state to do so since they downgraded or shut missions in Damascus in 2012.
Although the US opposes any steps toward normalizing relations with the Assad regime, it was Washington’s plans to pull its troops out of Syria that triggered the regional countries to find a way to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Concern over increasing Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria is another driving force behind these countries wanting to have Syria back on their side. Meanwhile, the Gulf states have deepened their relationship with Russia — the Syrian regime’s staunchest supporter — in recent years and have engaged in dialogue with Moscow over the Syrian file.
While circumstances in the region have started to change within a short period of time, it will be interesting to see how Turkey shapes its strategy if Syria does fully return to the Arab fold. Ankara, which hosts millions of Syrian refugees and has conducted three cross-border operations in northern Syria, is actively cooperating with Russia and Iran on the Syrian file through the Astana/Sochi process. It has also recalibrated its regional policy in recent months and has engaged in efforts to mend ties with Egypt and the Gulf countries. Will such a strategy now be implemented for Syria too?
Although Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), argues that establishing direct dialogue with Damascus would be the easiest way to reach a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria, it seems unlikely Ankara will make a major shift in its Syria policy for now, despite the changing conditions in the region and internationally. Even if such a door opens for dialogue, it is likely that Russia and Iran would play the leading role, rather than the Western countries, while Turkey would try to secure its own national interests.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz