Turkey signals possible rapprochement with Syria

Recently, there have been signs of reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, which have been at odds for more than a decade as Ankara supported Syrian rebel forces fighting Damascus.

Pro-government daily Hurriyet reported on September 16 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had expressed a desire to meet his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, although Assad was not there .

“I would have liked Assad to come to Uzbekistan, I would have talked to him,” Erdogan said during a closed meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party, according to columnist Hurriyet Abdulkadir Selvi.

Moreover, last month, Erdogan reportedly said he would never rule out dialogue with Syria, adding that “we should take further steps with Syria.”

Reuters reported on September 15 that Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey‘s National Intelligence Organization, had met his counterpart, Syrian National Security Office Chairman Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus on several occasions in recent weeks, according to four sources. sources.

“Speech Change”

Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, told VOA that these developments are not new, as Turkey has worked closely with the Assad regime since 2016.

“I think the new thing we’re seeing right now is the change in rhetoric. We’re hearing higher from Turkish officials saying normalization with the regime is a possibility,” Tol said in a responding phone interview. to questions about Erdogan. recent statement regarding relations with Syria.

“But, really, if you look at all the developments that have happened since 2016, I don’t think it’s shocking.”

Tol said that since Erdogan began aligning his party with the nationalists to consolidate power, his top priority has shifted from toppling the Assad regime to limiting Kurdish advances in northern Syria.

“To achieve this goal, he needed not only a Russian green light, but also working closely with the regime itself. … So there was a tacit understanding between the two – while Erdogan attacks the Kurds, Assad is looking the other way,” Tol said.

Turkey has carried out four military operations in Syria since 2016 and considers the Kurdish YPG armed militia, a key element of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, a threat to national security.

Ankara views the Syrian Democratic Forces as a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey and the United States have designated as a terrorist organization.

Turkey, a NATO member, has a military presence in large swathes of northern Syria. Damascus considers Turkey an occupying power and calls for its unconditional withdrawal from Syria.

military incursion

Erdogan announced in June his intention to launch a new military incursion into northern Syria, targeting the areas of Tal Rifaat and Manbij to form a safe zone along the Syrian border. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Russian and pro-Syrian government forces are present in these areas, and Russia has not approved Turkey’s operation.

Aron Lund, a member of Century International and a Middle East analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, thinks Erdogan saw an opportunity for a new military operation as the US and Russia focused mainly on Ukraine.

Lund notes that Ankara does not need to seek the green light from Washington because the United States is not involved with SDF forces in the area where Turkey is considering an operation.

“Erdogan felt that Russia had weakened and was under increased international pressure, so it would not be able to fend off the same level of resistance in Syria. So it’s basically a good time to get away with it. take from the Syrian Democratic Forces because the United States and the Europeans will offer more discreet criticism than they normally would and the Russians will be more open to negotiating at Assad’s expense,” Lund told VOA during the interview. ‘a conversation.

“But Russia managed to parry that and drag Erdogan into a negotiation process where the counter-demand is that he has to talk to Assad, or not Assad personally maybe, but some form of normalization of their relationship. “, added Lund.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said last Monday that Moscow was ready to arrange a meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

“We think that [a foreign minister-level meeting] would be helpful. We are talking about establishing contacts, so far through the military and intelligence services – there have been such contacts,” Bogdanov said, answering a question about the possibility of such a meeting.

On the other hand, Mekdad told Sputnik on Saturday that there was no contact or meeting with Turkish officials during the UNGA. “There is no negotiation, no contact, at least nothing at the level of foreign ministers,” Mekdad said.

Mekdad also accused Turkey of failing to meet commitments agreed under the Astana process without detailing them. Erdogan, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Tehran for talks in Astana in July.

“The only obstacle to the peace process is Turkey’s lack of commitment,” Mekdad told Sputnik on the sidelines of the UNGA.

Return of refugees

Turkey’s pro-government daily, Sabah, reported on September 17 that Syrian and Turkish intelligence officials discussed several issues, including completing the process of Syria’s new constitution, revoking its expropriation law which allowed the Syrian government to confiscate property left behind by refugees, and the safe return of those refugees from Syria. Turkey hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority announced that more than 68,000 brick houses have been built in Syria for the return of refugees.

International rights groups, including Amnesty International, say war-torn Syria is still not safe to return.

Aaron Stein, Turkey expert and chief content officer at Metamorphic Media, says the parameters of Turkish foreign policy on Syria haven’t changed since 2016, but what has changed is that domestic political dynamics in Turkey got so bad for Erdogan’s party.

Stein cited rising anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in Turkey and the country’s economic crisis, with official inflation at 80.2% last month.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for next June, but the opposition parties are calling for early elections, which Erdogan has ruled out. The alliance of six opposition parties against Erdogan has promised to return Syrian refugees in a humane way. On the other hand, the far-right Victory Party is calling for the forced expulsion of Syrian refugees, blaming them for rising food prices.

“No Turk cares about Bashar al-Assad. What worries people in Turkey is that the cost of living is rising, food prices are out of control and wages are stagnating,” he said. Stein at VOA.

Stein said he did not expect any real progress on Turkey-Syria rapprochement and added: “I think the value for Erdogan now is that he can tell his constituents that he is working on a problem”.

This story was born in VOA Turkish service.

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