Syria-Turkiye normalization more complicated than anticipated
The process of rapprochement between Syria and Turkiye faces obstacles, making the normalization of relations between the two countries more complex and demanding than anticipated.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced last week that the defense ministers of Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkiye had held quadrilateral talks in Moscow regarding “strengthening security in Syria and normalizing Syrian-Turkish relations.” However, unlike the tripartite summit of the defense ministers of Turkiye, Russia and Syria, which took place last December, the most recent meeting did not indicate a state of harmony and positive prospects.
Conflicting statements by Syria and Turkiye released after the meeting reflect a decline in the aspirations — as previously suggested by the Russian and Turkish media — for an immediate breakthrough between the two neighbors.
Syria’s statements addressed several issues, the most important of which was the need for the Turkish army to withdraw from its lands as a prelude to a solution. Currently, the Turkish army is stationed in the northern part of Syria. Its military units are deployed in the province of Idlib, in northern Aleppo and as far east as Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain. Several dozen small military bases have been established in these areas.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan called for “actions, not words, to restore normal relations with Turkiye.” He said: “At the forefront of these actions is the explicit and clear commitment to respecting the sovereignty, unity and integrity of the Syrian lands and, secondly, the withdrawal of the Turkish occupation forces from all lands, and stop supporting terrorism.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed that his country’s forces would not be withdrawing from Iraq or Syria at this time. “Our withdrawal from northern Iraq and northern Syria means ceasing our military operations against terrorism and the approach of terrorists to our borders, which constitutes a threat to our national security,” he said.
Ankara supports the alliance of the so-called Syrian National Army, which the Syrian regime considers a terrorist organization. It has called for its dismantling. On the other hand, Turkiye accuses Damascus of supporting Kurdish militias and has called for their liquidation.
Cavusoglu stressed that terrorist groups will fill the void if Turkish forces were to withdraw from northern Syria and that national security and border security are paramount to Ankara. He believes his country will not withdraw as long as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, exist in Syria and Iraq. His statements indicate that there will be no withdrawal of troops in the near future, as the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on for decades and will certainly not end soon.
If the situation remains stagnant, it could backfire and lead to an escalation between the two countries.
These two conflicting announcements indicate that the road to normalization has entered a stage of complexity that will be difficult to solve in the short term. If the situation remains stagnant, it could backfire and lead to an escalation between the two countries, destroying the chances of a quick resolution.
Turkiye fears that Syria will support the PKK or its Syrian affiliates if there is no rapprochement between the two countries. Ankara also fears that, if it stops supporting the Syrian opposition, Islamist groups linked to the former Al-Nusra Front will take control of northwest Syria and Kurdish forces will maintain control of the northeast.
On the other hand, even if Ankara insists on maintaining its military presence in Syria, it must show flexibility toward Damascus during the Turkish election period. The ruling Justice and Development Party believes that a meeting between the leaders of Turkiye and Syria could help it win this month’s elections and keep President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power. Such a meeting would indicate to Turkish voters that the Syrian refugees will eventually return home, increasing Erdogan’s popularity and improving his chances of electoral success.
Damascus, meanwhile, bets on the victory of the Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, which is why it is trying to delay a possible leaders’ summit.
Moscow supports Erdogan and also maintains good relations with Bashar Assad. It seems to be trying to bring the two sides closer together without putting on too much pressure. If Vladimir Putin maintains a moderate approach in his dealings with both countries, dialogue and normalization talks could go on for a very long time without significant results. If, however, the Russian president manages to convince Assad to meet with Erdogan and accept the Turkish presence in northwest Syria, the path of rapprochement may bring tangible results.
If there is no summit between the two heads of state, we will most likely hear of several inconclusive rounds of three and four-party talks in the future. These normalization meetings may become similar to the Astana track, which began in 2017 but ultimately failed to achieve the desired results.
The road between Ankara and Damascus is not easy to navigate. Logically, high stakes cannot be placed on the dialogue achieving immediate results. The key to a solution is in Putin’s hands, but his preoccupation with Ukraine could make this issue less urgent. Work on the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement may, therefore, remain on the back burner.
Despite the lack of official normalization between Syria and Turkiye, the period of serious conflicts and armed clashes has ended and we have now entered a phase of cautious reservations.
Both countries will ultimately have no choice but to gradually come to a solution. However, that is still a long way off.
• Ghassan Ibrahim is a British-Syrian journalist and researcher on Middle East issues, most notably Turkiye, Syria and Iran. He can be reached at www.ghassanibrahim.com.