Can Turkey and Syria rebuild their relationship?
Turkey is reported to be considering reestablishing dialogue with Syria after more than a decade of thorny relations, although Damascus has denied the reports and said they came from Turkey with the purpose of “polishing the image of the Turkish leadership ahead of the upcoming elections in 2023.”
Obvious questions arise. Would Turkey attempt to rebuild relations with the Syrian regime for domestic political gain? Which country might act as a go-between? If an attempt to normalize relations were to take place, regardless of the driving forces behind it, what would it mean for Syrian refugees in Turkey? More importantly, what would a thaw in Turkey-Syria relations mean for regional balances at a time when the Syrian regime’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, are preoccupied by their own issues — the former with Ukraine, the latter with the nuclear talks? Lastly, will the 1998 Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus be on the agenda if Turkey and Syria begin a dialogue?
Discussions are said to be taking place in Ankara about opening talks with Damascus on three specific topics: Protecting the unitary structure of the Syrian state, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, and ensuring the safe return of refugees.
The Turkish leadership is reported to believe that its own foreign policy trends in recent months — including reconciliation with other countries in the region and its role in mediation efforts during the war in Ukraine — and Russia’s current focus on Ukraine might open a door of opportunity for Turkey to resolve the Syrian issue, including the problem of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Relations between Damascus and Ankara could be improved because until now they have been held back by Moscow and Tehran.
Two points require elaboration: Turkey’s approach to the territorial integrity of Syria, and the fate of refugees.
Turkey’s current policy objectives in Syria are countering the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which Ankara considers to have links to the PKK; securing opposition-held enclaves in the north of the country; and facilitating the relocation of Syrian refugees to these territories.
If talks between Turkey and Syria begin, the Adana agreement is likely to increase in importance. Under the agreement, Damascus agreed that it would not allow the PKK to operate on its soil. In such a scenario, therefore, Syria would be obligated either to extradite terrorists to Turkey, in this case members of the PKK, or banish them from the country.
Second, the fate of the 4 million Syrian refugees that Turkey is hosting has become a high priority for Ankara. As discomfort has grown among the Turkish public over the presence of the refugees, Ankara has started to work on ways to encourage their voluntary return home.
It is believed that Turkey’s conditions for normalization were conveyed to Damascus during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to the UAE last month.
In an effort to gain political ground at home, Ankara has conducted four cross-border operations in northern Syria, with each operation serving specific objectives, the most important of which is to tackle the threat of the PKK and affiliated Kurdish groups.
These operations also served domestic Turkish politics as the leadership consolidated its power. Turkey’s operations in Syria coincided with several major elections: The April 2017 referendum on the executive presidency, the June 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections, and the March 2019 municipal elections.
While at that time the Turkish leadership was using hard-power tools, such as these military operations, to preserve its power, now it seems to be looking for soft-power tools such as dialogue to serve the same purpose in the run-up to the 2023 elections.
There has been much focus on the UAE’s role in any possible thaw in relations between Turkey and Syria. The Emiratis have been treading lightly and taking pragmatic steps toward the reintegration of Damascus into the regional system. Ankara remains in control of parts of northwestern and northern Syria, and Turkish involvement in the country was one of the main sticking points in the relationship between Turkey and the UAE.
It is believed that Turkey’s conditions for normalization were conveyed to Damascus during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to the UAE last month. This came a month after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks in the UAE. The report also claimed that the success of Emirati mediation could open a new phase in Turkey-Syria relations and lead to the return of at least half of the refugees currently living in Turkey to their homeland.
Lastly, Turkey has been working with Russia and Iran to chart a possible road map for peace in Syria. The current wider geopolitical context might keep Russia and Iran on the sidelines as Arab countries push to increase their leverage on the situation in Syria.
The UAE has played a leading role in efforts to help the Assad regime return to the Arab fold; Jordan, Egypt and Iraq have also taken important steps. Russia’s war in Ukraine poses uncertainties for Syria, so the regime is trying to reach out to regional actors to help cope with the possible implications of the conflict. This development might also play into the hands of Turkey, as Assad will be unable to launch a major offensive against Idlib if Moscow shifts its priorities.
Taken together, domestic considerations, including Turkey’s economic situation and the upcoming elections, and regional developments, most significantly Russia’s war in Ukraine, are likely to influence the path of any normalization of relations between Turkey and Syria.
If such a normalization happens, Ankara and Damascus may obtain some gains from it; however, the fate of Syrian refugees will become more complicated.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz