Russia, Ankara and DamascusWho decides Turkey's foreign policy?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is giving strong signals of a possible reconciliation with the Syrian regime, which Ankara had until very recently called a dictatorship that needed to be toppled. “We don’t have an issue with defeating Assad or not,” he told journalists accompanying him on a trip to Ukraine on 18 August. Turkey and Syria severed ties in 2011 in the wake of the start of the Syrian war.
“Turkey will need to take bigger steps with Damascus to end the games being played in the region,” he said, reiterating that the United States continues to support terrorism in Syria by supplying weapons and equipment to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an ally of the U.S. in the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey considers the YPG a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the EU.
A military incursion or co-operation?
Since May 2022, Erdogan has been discussing the possibility of another military incursion into northern Syria, where the YPG controls Hasakah region in the northeast and Tel Rifaat and Manbij – both between two Turkish-controlled areas in the northwest. Any incursion would aim to link up the two Turkish-controlled enclaves in Syria.
But neither the U.S. nor Russia have sanctioned such a move. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently said they hope Turkey will "refrain" from launching an operation into northern Syria.
Erdogan set out to change Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind at their second face-to-face meeting within a month in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on 6 August. The outcome of the summit, however, was an about-turn in Ankara’s Syria rhetoric.
“We are not eyeing up Syrian territory; the people of Syria are our brothers. Maintaining the territorial integrity [of Syria] is important to us too. The regime needs to understand this,” Erdogan told reporters.
Professor Serhat Erkmen, from Istanbul’s Altinbaş University and an expert on Syrian affairs, said Damascus is as unhappy as Turkey with the self-declared autonomous regions controlled by Kurdish forces, but it does not have the military power to fight against them.
“Every time Turkey plans to conduct a military operation into Syria, Kurdish-led forces renew their efforts to achieve a reconciliation with Damascus. This is strengthening the [Assad] regime’s hand with regard to the YPG,” he said, adding that both Turkey and Syria share a common security threat when it comes to Kurdish forces. This is also why the limited communication that has taken place between the two countries in recent years has been conducted through their security organisations.
The Putin effect
Vladimir Putin believes Turkey’s security concerns would be better addressed by co-operation rather than a military incursion. In 2019 Putin reiterated that the Adana Agreement, which Turkey and Syria concluded in 1998, envisioning strong co-operation against Kurdish separatists, remains in effect. He is also keen to hammer out a settlement between Damascus and its opponents, a move Turkey supports.
Protests have erupted across northern Syria after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Syria's opposition and regime needed to reconcile to end the war https://t.co/JZyTyMi1SV
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) August 12, 2022
"Somehow we have to bring the opposition and the regime in Syria together to reach a settlement. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on 11 August, while revealing that he had briefly spoken to Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad last year on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade.
“There must be a strong administration in Syria to prevent any division in the country,” Cavusoglu continued. "The will to dominate every corner of its lands can only be achieved through unity and solidarity," he added.
His words caused an eruption of protests in the Turkish-controlled northwest Syria. In videos shared on social media, people were seen burning Turkish flags, shouting slogans against Turkey and throwing stones at Turkish military vehicles.
“I think contacts and talks between Ankara and Damascus will keep increasing, especially because of Russia, which clearly wants an end game in Syria. Moscow is benefiting from the economic difficulties that Turkey is facing and its isolation from the West. Russia wants an Ankara-Damascus settlement more than ever and will keep pushing for it,” Erkmen said.
Refugees: Unwanted by both
Turkey is not giving up on the option of a military incursion, however, despite apparent moves towards a rapprochement with Damascus. Ankara has said several times that one of the objectives of the military offensive would be to create a buffer zone along its border to relocate a large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Turkey has more refugees than any other country in the world. It is a hot topic in Turkish politics. A recent survey by Metropoll research company showed that 81.7 percent of the Turkish population want the Syrians to return to their country. Such an atmosphere, combined with the unplanned refugee policy of the AKP, makes refugees an easy target for the Turkish political opposition. Not only far-right groups and a newly established anti-refugee party, but even the main opposition – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – is promising to repatriate Syrian refugees.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has, on several occasions, vowed that if the opposition wins the 2023 elections, they will reach an agreement with Assad and ensure the safe return of Syrians. Kilicdaroglu, who has always accused the Turkish government of fuelling the Syrian civil war, welcomed the government’s steps towards reconciliation, but added that it’s “too little, too late”.
Now, even the government wants to send the refugees back, as the AKP is really struggling to shore up an embattled economy and has seen its popularity dwindle. But Erkmen believes the return of Syrian refugees is not a priority for Damascus, which is already facing severe difficulties meeting the needs of its population within the country.
Ankara is also hoping that following a ceasefire between the regime and opposition, the situation might change.
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"#Turkey’s rapprochement with #Syria leaves regional #Refugees fearful @RTErdogan is no longer seeking the ousting of #Assad, alarming #Syrians across the opposition & #Kurdish exiles who fear being forcibly..."https://t.co/pY6wnxXqW8
— TRUE eye ️ (@TeRyUeE) August 23, 2022
"No one wants to help re-build without ceasefire and peace. This includes the EU, the important actors of the world, as well as the international community. Therefore, we are doing our best, but the basis for all this is a ceasefire. We will of course intensify our work in this regard,” Cavusoglu had also said recently.
The bargaining table remains laden with issues: Damascus wants to regain control of its territories, Ankara still sees the presence of the U.S.-backed Kurdish groups on its border as a threat and Moscow is seeking to concentrate its energies and resources on Ukraine.
According to Erkmen, Ankara and Damascus could well increase contact and communication, but their differing views on refugees are likely to prevent them from reaching a settlement soon.
© Qantara.de 2022