The first formal ministerial meeting between Turkey and Syria in 11 years should be turning heads. Russia hosted talks last week between Defense Ministers Hulusi Akar and Ali Mahmoud Abbas. Is a rapprochement some form of a realistic 2023 bet?
This is quite the turnaround given the decade-long hostilities between the two countries, with ties having been cut in 2012. Turkey has been the chief sponsor of the external Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.
Opposition fighters received training from Ankara as well as weapons. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has referred to his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, as a terrorist. And Turkey has launched four major military invasions into northern Syria and still occupies significant parts of the area.
Talks would appear set to continue into 2023, with foreign ministers possibly up next in mid-January. Who knows, this might even lead to some form of presidential summit in the early spring. Akar also left open the possibility of extending existing cooperation on the ground with Russia to include the Syrian regime.
For those paying close attention, this should not have come as a surprise. Turkish-Syrian intelligence links resumed under the table a while back.
Since last August at least, Erdogan has talked of the need for diplomacy between the two governments and stated that regime change in Damascus was no longer Turkish policy.
Erdogan made his desired path clear. “First, our intelligence agencies, then defense ministers and then foreign ministers could meet. After their meetings, we as the leaders may come together,” he said last month. The respective heads of intelligence were also at the Moscow summit.
Russia’s game is the easiest to fathom. The meeting took place in Moscow under Russian auspices. The rehabilitation of its long-term Middle East vassal would serve it well. Allies are gold dust right now for the sanctioned state stuck in the Ukrainian quagmire. President Vladimir Putin needs a success or two. He will also wish to exclude Iran and limit its influence in Damascus, even as the Russian military has been buying up Iranian technology including drones.
The bigger game for Putin will be Turkey as a key NATO member. If he were to lose in Ukraine, he could distract from the humiliation by winning over Ankara. Already, Turkish-Russian trade is up, as are energy links. It still looks a long shot, but Putin clearly believes he can tempt Turkey away from the US orbit.
Who will be the losers? Syrian Kurds certainly fear the consequences of a Turkey-Syria deal. The Syrian regime has carefully calculated that the Kurdish groups can never trust the Turkish leadership, so will ultimately have to gravitate back to an uneasy modus vivendi with Damascus.
What choice do they have? The Syrian regime would then become responsible for ensuring that the Kurdish groups are contained and pose no perceived threat to Turkish interests. That said, the Syrian regime may struggle to deliver on any commitment to control Kurdish groups and areas.
The Syrian regime craves the full reunification of the country under its control, even if it has been prepared to be patient to achieve this goal.
A fresh Turkish invasion, which has been signaled for some time, is not off the table. In November, Turkey launched major air attacks against Kurdish groups following the deadly bombing on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, which the Turkish authorities swiftly attributed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Erdogan wants Putin’s backing to proceed and to deal a severe blow to Kurdish groups before Turkey’s adventure in Syria is halted. Note that it is Russia’s go-ahead that is sought, not Washington’s.
Another loser would be the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition. Protests have already erupted at the prospect of Turkish-Syrian normalization in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria. Erdogan has used these opposition groups as a tool ever since 2011. However, as easily as he nurtured them, he can also ditch them now. He knows the Syrian regime will not fall. The opposition groups have reached new levels of impotence and ineffectiveness. The danger is that they provide few bonuses for Ankara and can be a liability. That said, Erdogan will probably keep them as a card up his sleeve should any arrangement with Assad go sour.
Still, it is likely that the Syrian regime will, one day, with Russian backing and Turkish acquiescence, launch a final assault on Idlib in the northwest of the country. The Syrian regime craves the full reunification of the country under its control, even if it has been prepared to be patient to achieve this goal.
Syrian refugees would also be under even greater threat if any deal materializes. Erdogan has made no secret of his intention to return many of the 3.8 million of them said to be in Turkey back to Syria. Ideally, he wants them to be relocated to northern Syria to form a demographic buffer between Turkiye and the Syrian Kurdish areas. In fact, many have already been forcibly sent back into Syria, albeit not to the areas they originated from. Erdogan is deeply conscious that hosting refugees has become an unpopular burden on the country, given its economic difficulties.
This leaves the resurgent Daesh. The largely Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces has been in the vanguard of trying to suppress the extremists, with backing from the global anti-Daesh coalition, notably the US. Above all, it controls camps such as Al-Hol in northeastern Syria, which holds 50,000 people, many of whom sympathize with Daesh. Only a week ago, a Daesh sleeper cell killed six SDF members. Daesh has much to gain from any Turkish attempt to weaken the SDF and will seize on any opportunities this creates.
The Turkish and Syrian governments will convert this into a joint battle against terrorism. This was clear from the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statement, which referred to the need to “combat all terrorist organizations in Syria.”
As for the ramshackle dregs of the Assad regime, its survival looks even more secure. It will delight in this as yet another step toward normalizing regional ties, but also for the full reassertion of its countrywide authority.
But this is no triumph. The Syrian economy is in tatters. More than half the population struggle to feed their families. The country and society are fractured and brutalized. Widespread anger and despair mean that the regime’s foundations remain weak, with little prospect of recovery. Syrians feel cruelly abandoned, but are more than capable of taking matters into their own hands at some point in the future.
• Chris Doyle