Ocalan's shadow narrows the gap between Turkey and Syria

An imprisoned Kurdish leader and fears of a permanent Kurdish presence in Syria’s north could lead to talks between two of the Middle East’s longest serving rulers.

Ocalan's shadow narrows the gap between Turkey and Syria

In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he wants to help bring his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in from the cold. Diplomatically, that means facilitating normalisation between al-Assad and the Arab world, and between al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both men have ruled for more than two decades.

Re-establishing Syria’s ties with Arab countries has been relatively straightforward, as exemplified by Damascus’s readmission to the Arab League in May 2023, and al-Assad’s participation in the last two Arab summits. However, the situation with Turkey is decidedly more complex, in large part because the Turkish military—either directly or through proxies—controls around 10% of Syrian territory, an area twice the size of Lebanon.

Ankara has been providing military and intelligence support to armed factions since 2012, and Turkey hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees, so this is no temporary arrangement. The Turks will only extract themselves when everything lines up.

No preconditions

Russia can feel quietly confident. After all, it has previously brokered dialogue between al-Assad and Erdogan, culminating in intelligence, military, and political meetings. Among these, former Turkish intelligence director (now Foreign Minister) Hakan Fidan and National Security Office director Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk secretly visited Damascus after publicly visiting Moscow in early 2020.

For al-Assad, though, Turkish incursions into Syria sting, and every time there has been talk of a meeting between him and Erdogan, the Syrian president has said the Turks must first either withdraw or set a public timescale for doing so. Until now, this has been where the process typically ends. For its part, Ankara says it adheres to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, noting that its withdrawal is linked to a political solution in Damascus, and ensuring that northern Syria does not pose a threat to Turkish national security.

Now, a breakthrough appears to have been achieved, which would mark a significant shift. The mediation efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani and Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev appear to have found a compromise. In short, the Syrians are waiving their precondition of a Turkish withdrawal, while Ankara is dropping its requirement for a political solution as a precursor to withdrawal. What has driven the shift? Rather, it is better to ask: who?

Read more: Softened stances help grease the path to Turkey-Syria normalisation

Enter Ocalan

The answer appears to be the ever-influential Abdullah Ocalan, co-founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and a high-profile Turkish prisoner since he was abducted from Nairobi by Turkish intelligence officers in 1999.

Ocalan was based in Syria from 1978-98, but Damascus abandoned him in October 1998 to avoid a Turkish military attack. Professionally homeless, the PKK man was abducted just months later. After Ocalan’s arrest, political and economic relations between Syria and Turkey flourished. They shared intelligence, and Damascus soon handed other Kurdish leaders over to Ankara, imprisoning other Syrian-based PKK fighters.

Today, both Ankara and Damascus are convinced that the Kurdish institutional presence—particularly the Autonomous Administration in north-east Syria—poses an existential threat to their unity and territorial integrity.

Both Turkey and Syria are convinced that the Kurdish presence in north-east Syria poses an existential threat to their unity and territorial integrity.

Yet while they have common ground in this, there remains personal animosity and bad blood, after relations deteriorated at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Damascus allowed the expansion of Kurdish parties and entities in north-east Syria, in a move squarely aimed at its former ally, Turkey, but the strategy backfired after the CIA and US special forces worked with, and relied upon, Kurdish fighters in Syria to defeat Islamic State (IS) in 2014. The US-led coalition even provided air support to institutionalise the Kurdish administration, which increased the threat as seen from both Syria and Turkey.

Foes, not friends

While Syria both talked to and threatened the Kurds, Turkey attacked them militarily, occupying enclaves in the Aleppo countryside and supporting factions in Idlib. This was aimed at weakening the Kurdish position, cutting any connection to the Mediterranean and the Euphrates.

From his prison in Turkey, the 75-year-old Ocalan is now playing the same role he once did from Damascus a quarter of a century ago. Both al-Assad and Erdogan do not want the relative establishment of Syria's Kurds (led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF) to become permanent, lest it inspire Turkey's own Kurds and the PKK.

Indeed, secret discussions are underway between Damascus and Ankara to launch a military operation against the Kurdish-dominated SDF, whose goal is a secular, democratic, and federalised Syria. At present, there are many unknowns, including the timing and nature of any operation, for instance, and whether it would be a joint ground offensive, with Turkish air power.

In terms of timing, the US elections loom large. Some analysts think the states may wait for Donald Trump's expected second presidency in January 2025, given that he has a better relationship with Putin and Erdogan. Trump, who is no fan of American military adventurism overseas, has previously threatened to withdraw US personnel from north-east Syria. But it remains uncertain if he will be able to follow through on this promise?

Moving the pieces

There are ongoing talks between Syrian and American in Muscat, Oman, and between Turkey and America in Ankara and Washington. The Kurds had been due to hold elections in recent weeks, something both Turkey and Syria saw as a threat. US diplomats have been asked to tell the Kurds not to go ahead.

In exchange for preparing military action against the Kurds in north-east Syria, there is talk of joint arrangements in north-west Syria, including military patrols and opening major roads from Aleppo to Latakia, and from Gaziantep on the Turkish border to the Nassib Crossing on the Jordanian border. This would help strengthen economic and trade relations and restore Syria's role as a commercial crossing point to the Gulf.

It appears that, in 2024, concerns regarding Ocalan and the Kurds have again created a convergence of Syrian-Turkish interests, paving the way for a meeting between al-Assad and Erdogan to collaborate on dismantling what they see as the Kurdish threat east of the Euphrates—a region rich in strategic resources—and reopen trade routes elsewhere.

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