President Tayyip Erdoğan’s statements last May brought the issue of reconciliation with Syria and the Bashar al Assad government to Türkiye’s agenda. The signals were so strong that many thought that a meeting with Syria at the Minister or the Deputy Minister level could be possible on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. It did not happen.
We could say that the talks between the intelligence services of the two countries are mature enough to allow President Erdoğan to make a public statement on such a sensitive issue, but not mature enough to allow the talks to be carried to the next level, which is the political level.
Perhaps the haste of politicians pursuing to announce a success story outweighs the actual situation.
The subject, which had been at the top of Türkiye’s agenda a very short time ago, had dropped off the agenda for the last two weeks. So much so that the President did not even mention Syria in his speech at the opening of the Turkish Grand National Assembly on October 1st.
Seeking common ground with Syria
But, speaking to the press after the first European Political Community meeting held in Prague on October 6, the President brought the issue to the public discussion once again. In his reply to a question, he said that there is not going to be a meeting with Assad at the moment. He added that this does not mean that it was impossible and he could meet with the Syrian president when the time comes. He also pointed out to the continuation at lower level officials (intelligence) are ongoing. The President stressed the threat emanating from northern Syria. On the issue of Syrian refugees, he said that the briquette houses accelerated their return, and in this context, 550,000 Syrians returned to their countries so far.
What I inferred from the President’s speech is the following: He did not close the door to the Assad regime. We also learned that the talks between the intelligence continue without interruption. But, at least for now, it seems that common ground with Syria has not been found.
We will see if the Syrians will react to what he said.
However, from the recent statements of Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad and some other Syrian officials, it can be said that from Syria’s point of view, “Türkiye’s withdrawal from Syrian territory” and “putting an end to support for Syrian terrorist groups” are somewhat of a condition for any progress.
The difference in the definition of “terrorist groups”
We can guess that Türkiye also has requests on a number of issues. These range from threats emanating from Syrian territory (mainly from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party PKK/ Kurdish militia in Syria People’s Defence Units, YPG) to the return of Syrian refugees.
What Syria regards as terrorist are the Syrian opposition groups based in Türkiye, as well as the Syrian National Army and other groups in Syria.
Similar issues were also a part of discussions between Türkiye and some other regional countries.
For example, Egypt demanded the closure of television channels broadcasting from Türkiye and the extradition of some dissidents. On another case, Irit Lillian, the Israeli chargé d’affaires in Ankara (assigned as the Ambassador in October), also told an Israeli newspaper a while ago that the Hamas office in Istanbul was an obstacle to the development of relations.
Both Türkiye and Syria have reasons for softening their hostile relations. But at the moment, Türkiye seems more willing to do that. We can attribute this to the special importance that the issues of “security” and “return of Syrian refugees” carry for the upcoming elections and domestic politics.
PKK, US and Syrian refugees
Even though he retains his seat, Assad, is still at risk. This is more so as Russia is deeply involved in the war in Ukraine and Iran faces a nationwide rebellion wave.
In the context of the Syrian crisis, one the two most important issues for Türkiye, is security, especially the YPG.
Türkiye does not want the YPG to become a state within Syrian territory. The current positions of the Kurds and the YPG and their place in Syria’s future administrative system are also very important issues related to Türkiye’s domestic politics.
Ankara has been extremely upset with its “strategic partner and ally” USA choosing YPG as its local partner in Syria and providing support and weapons to it.
Coupled with the US’s relations with Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration, the situation becomes even more negative. US support for the YPG should be evaluated mainly within the general framework of Türkiye-US relations and the new strategic positioning of the US.
Is the USA any different than Russia?
Is our “friend and partner” Russia any different? No. Russia also has extensive relations with the YPG.
Both the USA and Russia consider the YPG as a useful organization. The YPG is happy with that, as they continue to pursue their own agenda.
Despite President Erdogan’s statements in May, Türkiye has still not carried out a cross-border military operation into Syria. But Turkey targets the YPG/PKK’s top cadres and important names. The message to the Turkish public is; we continue to fight terrorism.
Another major issue for Türkiye is Syrian refugees and their return.
“Syrian refugees” are one of the top issues now in Turkish domestic policy. The public is very sensitive and it is an issue ripe for exploitation by all sides.
Refugee award goes to Merkel, not Erdogan
As Türkiye is approaching the election, every political party tries to appear to be doing something on this issue, or at least does not want to be seen lagging behind others. It seems that the general political direction about this issue is drawn by the Victory Party under the leadership of Ümit Özdağ.
It is not true that Assad is calling for refugees to return and that he will welcome and embrace them. It is also not true that Syrians started to return in masses as a result of projects such as briquette houses. The source of the problem is in Syria and the solution also lies over there. Neither the political, economic, security or social conditions are suitable for the voluntary return of refugees in masses.
The return of Syrians is also a problematic issue in Lebanon and Jordan.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the Hansen Award for 2022 will be given to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened Germany’s doors to around 1 million Syrian refugees in the 2015-2016 period.
Naturally, the question that comes to mind is why this award was not given to Türkiye, which hosts 3.7 million Syrians and has shouldered the heaviest burden for years. It would be sloppy and misleading to explain this solely in terms of the West’s hostility towards Türkiye.
Reconciliation efforts with Syria
The Turkish government has begun to change its policies and has come up with some initiatives to improve relations with the countries in the region (such as Egypt, UAE, Israel, and Saudi Arabia).
This new spirit in international relations is more to do with the upcoming elections. It seems that the government considers foreign policy as a tool that can compensate for the problems in the economic field and domestic politics.
Any achievement with Syria will constitute the big bonus or the jewel in the crown.
Most recent opinion polls indicate that the public views positively the improvement of relations with various countries, and in this context with Syria.
We can expect the government to continue with the motto “Let Bygones be bygones” by embellishing its initiatives with various slogans. Contradictions with previous positions and statements seem to be forgotten.
But as I mentioned in my article on YetkinReport in August, this process is a very difficult one. There are many internal and external factors in the equation, many issues and the solution to every problem may lead to new problems.
Will the economic crisis force Erdogan to make peace with Assad?