Turkey faces a difficult choice in Syria

Although the war in Syria is no longer in the headlines, the conflict continues to simmer. So too is the endless diplomacy as the myriad of groups and countries involved seek to strike deals that prioritize their national goals.

Amidst so much quicksand, it’s no wonder that rumors and comments are spreading like wildfire among Syrian communities – and that these rumors are causing reactions in the real world.

This was the response last week to the Turkish foreign minister’s admission that he had met the Syrian Minister for Foreign Affairs last year – the first known meeting between the two sides since the start of the war in Syria more than a decade ago.

But Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a conference in Ankara, also said something else rather intriguing. He said: “We have to somehow reconcile with the opposition and the regime in Syria…. There must be a strong administration in Syria… which can dominate every corner of its land.

As with so much that has happened in the struggles between Syria and outside powers over the past 10 years, many policy shifts were first announced as hints. It could be such a change – or it could be nothing, just a comment.

Unsurprisingly, however, Syrians inside the country and in Turkey were unwilling to wait and see. His comments sparked immediate protests in parts of northern Syria still controlled by Turkey, where the majority of Syrian rebels have settled, while the rest of the country has fallen back under government control.

There is an undeniable logic in Turkey’s mediating between the Syrian government and the opposition. Yet it also puts the country in the odious position of having to abandon its Syrian allies and undermines a plan that Ankara has spent years and tens of millions of dollars creating.

If Cavusoglu’s words became flesh, it would represent a massive shift, abandoning one group of allies to defeat another group of militants.

Cavusoglu’s comments are the first hint that Turkey may abandon its years-long plan to relocate Syrian refugees to the Syrian side of the border, but protected by Turkish soldiers. Coming so soon after Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met in Tehranunder the Astana process, it is no wonder that it is seen as a change in policy.

Landlocked strategy

Since 2016, Turkey has secured three such enclaves along the Turkish-Syrian border. In these liminal spaces, Syrians who sought asylum in Turkey were relocated, their children studying in schools built in Turkey, using Turkish currency, administered by Turkish governors and supervised by Syrian soldiers paid by the Turkish government. .

These enclaves, while deeply controversial and a violation of Syria‘s territorial sovereignty, were a viable solution to two of Turkey’s greatest challenges: how to expel millions of Syrian refugees from its soil and how to repel Kurdish militants from its territory. border.

The refugee issue has become a national priority; popular anger in Turkey over the number of Syrian refugees has not abated. In fact, it could still fuel enough anger for President Erdogan to lose next year’s election.

But if Turkey becomes the middle man, mediating between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition, many of the advantages of these enclaves crumble. Indeed, even hinting that this might be an option – as Cavusoglu did – could make the whole endeavor unworkable.

Almost everyone living in the Turkish enclaves does not want to be subject to regime control again, fearing imprisonment or worse. This is certainly true for the 50,000 Syrian rebels in the Syrian National Army, a group funded entirely by Turkey.

What those living in these enclaves fear more than anything is what might be called a Sinjar moment – waking up to find that Turkish soldiers are gone and the Syrian government is back in charge, a reference to the Yazidi town in 2014, when Kurdish troops withdrew overnight, leaving residents to Islamic State (ISIS) militants, with devastating results.

Even the rumor that these areas might one day be handed over to the Assad regime would prevent further refugees from moving there – and would almost certainly prompt rebel soldiers to prepare for that eventuality.

Kurdish “threat”

The only reason for abandoning the enclave project is the perceived threat of a Kurdish homeland.

Ankara has fought a long-running Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency in Turkey and does not want allied Kurdish militias on its border. These militias, with the support of the United States, now control large parts of eastern and northeastern Syria, in areas where natural resources are concentrated. The last thing Ankara wants is for this region to become a de facto state, and Erdogan has made it clear that he is ready to use military force to stop it.

This potential – and most likely ad hoc – alliance with the Assad regime will have this objective in mind. But this will have a cost.

In terms of the Syrian government’s hierarchy of desires, the desire to rid the eastern parts of Syria of US influence ranks higher than the small enclaves that Turkey has created within its territory. However, if – and this remains so important – an agreement between Ankara and Damascus results in the return of Kurdish-held territories, it would surely leave only the Turkish enclaves out of the control of the Assad regime.

It is unimaginable that Damascus, having sought to recover territory in one area, is content to leave other areas under Turkish control. Ankara must realize that would mean having to abandon the enclaves – and with them, the best plan it currently has for relocating millions of Syrian refugees.

Solving one of Turkey’s greatest challenges will simply make another even more intractable.

This article was provided by Syndication desk, who owns the copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and a frequent commentator for international television news channels. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and has reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Follow him on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai.

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