Softened stances help grease the path to Turkey-Syria normalisation

Turkish and Syrian security officials are rumoured to have recently met at Latakia’s Hmeimim air base under Russian auspices, where some cooperation agreements were reached

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on June 26, 2024, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) meeting with the Russian President's special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, in Damascus.
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on June 26, 2024, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) meeting with the Russian President's special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, in Damascus.

Softened stances help grease the path to Turkey-Syria normalisation

Ankara and Damascus may be on their way to improve relations and reconcile. Syria’s return to the Arab League and the revival of diplomatic relations with Arab countries is a major coup for the previously isolated and embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even though Arab nations want him to do much more to honour his commitments, which he is said to have promised in return for normalisation.

Despite its misgivings, regional heavyweight Turkey seems to have given up on the idea of a Syria without al-Assad and has made some overtures to establish a cooperative relationship with Damascus. Through Russian mediation, Ankara first reestablished contact with Damascus in 2021 between intelligence services, followed by meetings between the ministers of defence and foreign affairs.

However, Erdogan and al-Assad have yet to meet to formalise relations, mainly because the Syrian leader has made Turkish troop withdrawal a pre-condition for normalisation, which has been a non-starter for Ankara. However, these positions may have softened as Turkish Defence Minister Yaşar Güler stated that his country’s troops could consider withdrawal if certain conditions are met by Syria—such as adoption of an inclusive constitution, free elections, comprehensive normalisation and tighter national security.

For his part, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad seems to have also softened his position at a press conference with his Iranian counterpart when he said that diplomatic engagement with Ankara could begin with Turkish pledges to withdraw instead of concrete action. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan recently travelled to Moscow, where he met with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov as well as President Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan during a meeting in Moscow, Russia June 11, 2024.

Among other issues, Syria was also on the agenda. Russia’s position is important for the normalisation process between Turkey and Syria and it is worth remembering that recently, relations between Turkey and Russia have not been as warm as they used to be. Even though Russia has been mediating between Turkey and Syria, it will only support a normalisation process that serves its interests. Presidents Erdoğan and Putin may meet in Astana, where they will both attend the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation set to take place on 3-4 July, where they could make surprise announcements regarding Syria.

Hmeimim rendezvous?

There are already interesting developments, that give promise to such a possibility. Although pro-regime media outlets in Syria have denied it, informed sources say that Turkish and Syrian security officials—probably at the level of field commanders and security operatives—recently met at Hmeimim air base in the southeast of the city of Latakia under Russian auspices.

Developments in Idlib, where Syrian and Russian planes and drones continue to attack Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other targets in the rebel-held area, were likely on the agenda. Turkey is concerned that an escalation in Idlib and adjacent areas—where more than 4 million Syrians live—could trigger another mass flow of refugees into Turkey.

Russian mediation is said to have also led to economic cooperation developments. The Abu al-Zandeen crossing near al-Bab—which connects areas under the control of the Syrian National Army and the Syrian regime in eastern Aleppo—has been reopened for commercial passage.

During a recent visit by Russia’s Special Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, to Damascus, al-Assad publically stated that Syria is open to all initiatives to improve relations with Turkey if they are respectful of Syrian sovereignty over all its territories and the fight against all forms of terrorism.

Mediators and meddlers

Iraq also stepped into a mediating role between the two countries after President Erdogan's official visit in April 2024. It earned prestige by mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran and then between Egypt and Iran. By virtue of geography, Turkey, Syria and Iraq share challenges and interests, such as PKK/YPG activities, the fight against the Islamic State (IS), transboundary waters and economic cooperation. However, Iraq's chances of success are lower compared to Russia’s.

Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani (R) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan give a joint statement to the media in Baghdad on April 22, 2024.

Read more: Iraq’s Al Sudani becomes the latest Turkey-Syria mediator

Then, there is also the Iranian factor—Syria’s other main ally. Iran—which had lost ground to Turkey in Syria before the beginning of the crisis in 2011—can be expected to jealously guard the advantageous position it regained during the civil war and refrain from fully supporting Turkish-Syrian rapprochement efforts.

It is clear that al-Assad owes much to Iran’s support, and one of the major reasons for Arab nations normalising with him was their aim to prevent driving Syria further into the arms of Iran. Before Syria’s civil war, Iran had a strong presence there, but its influence has only grown since then. Its spreading of Shiism in the country has not only upset its Sunni-majority population, but its hegemonic ambitions have also fomented discontent within regime ranks—leading to rumours of a growing rift between Damascus and Tehran.

Turkish grievances

Turkey's two main Syria-related problems are security and Syrian refugees. Many Turks, including supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), hold President Erdoğan and his government responsible for allowing several million Syrians into Turkey with the so-called open-door policy.

Erdoğan is acutely aware that this policy cost him votes in the elections. He now claims that thanks to his directives, around half a million Syrians—out of 3.6 million—have returned, and more are set to back under what it calls “voluntary, safe and dignified returns.” There is no clarity on what this means exactly, and many Turks think it is unrealistic to expect all Syrian refugees to leave, but they hope for as many as possible to be repatriated.

Ankara knows that al-Assad is the key stumbling block to the repatriation of Syrians, so it has come to grips with the fact that, in order to deal with the refugee problem, it has to deal with him. Al-Assad knows this and is using this as leverage to get the Turkish government to come to his terms.

Syrian refugees wait to board a bus as they head to border villages of Edirne province, in Istanbul, Turkey, 28 February 2020.

On the security side, Turkey believes that the People's Protection Units (YPG) and its civilian branch, the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, are set to carve out an autonomous structure within what they call a “Democratic Republic of Syria”—something that Ankara is vehemently committed to preventing, no matter the cost.

Turkey strongly objected to local elections in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. Elections were postponed twice, on 30 May and then on 11 June, and a new date has been set for the beginning of August. For its part, Damascus has remained silent on these developments, undoubtedly happy to see Ankara sweating over it. However, ultimately, Syria shares similar concerns with Turkey regarding YPG activity and intentions.

For their part, political parties close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani in Erbil boycotted the elections on the grounds that they would not be fair and that the YPG would force people to vote for its candidates at gunpoint.

Even the United States, the main patron of the YPG, took a surprise stance by declaring that it would not be appropriate to hold elections since conditions for free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections, as stipulated in the UNSC Resolution 2254, were not in place. This does not mean the US has changed its policy of backing the YPG, but it was just a tactical decision aimed at not alienating Turkey further.

Despite its misgivings, Turkey seems to have given up on the idea of a Syria without al-Assad and has made some overtures to establish a cooperative relationship.

Just a few days ago, Fidan said in a television interview that "there are 2.5 active members (of the international community) with whom we have problems regarding YPG; the US, the UK and a little bit of France", and he referred to America's presence in Syria as a problem.

Complex and volatile

The issue of Syria is extremely complex, and its future depends on a series of unknowns, including the outcome of upcoming presidential elections in the US. Donald Trump is known to be in favour of washing his hands of Syria and other 'problematic areas' in the world. The international community, in general, has grown tired of the long and costly war in Syria—especially as crises in Ukraine and Gaza have taken centre stage. But the Syrian crisis is far from over, and there is ample reason to believe that it can fall back into civil war.

Actors such as Turkey, Iran, the US, Russia and some Arab countries remain very important in determining the future of Syria. Still, the key to achieving a lasting peace mainly rests with whether al-Assad is genuinely willing to take the pathway foreseen in the UNSC resolution 2254. While the Syrian leader wants to consolidate his position, he has not changed his uncompromising and mostly brutal style of governance since the uprising against him started in 2011.

The volatile situation in Syria's southern province of Sweida, token measures against the production and smuggling of Captagon and unconvincing promises for the safety of Syrian refugees if they return home, all give observers reason to believe that al-Assad is not serious about peace. But even if the Syrian leader does not inspire much hope, everything is possible in international relations, where things may change dramatically overnight. In this respect, Turkish-Syrian relations are worth following closely.

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