Syria the odd man out in Turkey’s foreign strategy

Syria the odd man out in Turkey’s foreign strategy

Syria the odd man out in Turkey’s foreign strategy
Syrians protest in Azaz on Aug. 12, 2022, against Turkey's reconciliation plan with the Assad regime. (Reuters)
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In the post-2011 era, Turkish foreign policy has gone through serious transformations with Ankara having its ups and downs in relations with several countries in the region. However, the sharpest change in Turkish foreign policy has taken place since 2020 as Ankara started to normalize its relations with previous foes including Israel, Armenia, Egypt and the Gulf countries. Syria remains the odd man out in Turkish regional policy strategy, despite the efforts of several countries to bring Damascus back into the regional fold.

For years there have been reports of a possible Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, mostly denied by officials of two countries. However, Turkish media reported last week that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian leader Bashar Assad were likely to hold a telephone conversation soon, the proposal having come from Russian President Vladimir Putin at a recent meeting with Erdogan in Sochi. Moreover, it was claimed that a Gulf country (many predict the UAE) and an African country were trying to act as a mediator between Ankara and Damascus to hold a meeting between Erdogan and Assad. For this purpose, the report adds that a commission of experts was established to facilitate the process.

Time will show whether these reports reflect reality. However, their timing speaks for itself. They came after four important developments: Ankara said it was preparing for military action in northern Syria that is strongly opposed by Syria, Russia and Iran; Erdogan, Putin and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi met at the Astana summit talks in Tehran recently, where Assad was certainly the elephant in the room; Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi last Friday to discuss a range of issues, of which Syria was among the top; and Ankara said that there were ongoing talks between Turkish and Syrian intelligence services regarding the fight against terrorism, a claim previously denied by Damascus.

Erdogan, on his way back to Turkey, told the press that Putin had asked him to coordinate with the Syrian regime in the fight against terrorism. It is noteworthy that the latest Erdogan-Putin meeting was the second within a month and one of nearly 30 in the past few years. The special relations that have emerged over the past few years between Erdogan and Putin have gained a new momentum with the war in Ukraine. The frequency of meetings between them indicates that there are several issues that need discussion, even if it doesn’t result in agreements. For Turkey, Russia is the most important country in the Syria context, so Assad’s presence or absence does not have much meaning.

There are too many actors in the equation, and they all have different priorities and agendas

Sinem Cengiz

Turkey seeks Russia’s understanding of its security concerns. So far, in regard to terrorism, Turkey has not been able to get the support it hoped from the US and from its regional cooperation partners Russia and Iran. Although Russia claims that it understands Turkey's concerns about terrorism emanating from Syria, at the same time it won’t give the green light for an operation that could eliminate Turkish concerns. Moreover, there are claims that Russia even encourages the Assad regime and US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, the YPG, to cooperate. In Syria, it has become so complicated to understand who is cooperating with whom. The country is more than a quagmire. Although the war seems to have ended, there is still an ongoing crisis that serves as a fertile ground for several countries and militant groups. There are too many actors in the equation, and they all have different priorities and agendas.

In Syria, Turkey has turned away from its initial goal of supporting the opposition against the regime to a strategy that aims to prevent the influence of YPG militants. This transformation in Turkish policy was a result of immediate security threats, as well as changes in domestic politics.

Turkish officials have insisted that Turkish operations don't target its neighbors’ sovereignty but are necessary for Turkish security. In this regard, the Turkish foreign minister even said that Ankara was prepared to cooperate with the Syrian government in its efforts to flush out members of YPG from energy-rich areas in northeastern Syria. For Ankara, now, Assad seems to be the lesser evil than the YPG.

Any means of possible cooperation with Damascus against the YPG, even if not via diplomatic ties, is likely to bring some gains for Turkey, both in domestic and foreign politics, especially ahead of the 2023 elections. First, taking the 1998 Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus as a basis for cooperation, the YPG’s expansion could be ceased. Second, this new situation could also ease the general resentment caused by the Turkish government’s policies toward Syria and its refugees. Last, it could remove the elephant in the room in Russian-Turkish-Iranian talks. But how the Syrian opposition will be placed in a possible new era in Turkish-Syrian relations, how the refugee issue will be settled, and what will be the fate of the Turkish-supported regions in Syria are among the challenging questions.

Time will show what developments take place in Turkish-Syrian relations. In any case, despite all challenges, a new era in relations might be on the horizon. Until then, Syria remains the odd man out in Turkey's regional policy.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz

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