Title: Turkiye-Syria Relations: Navigating Tensions and the Path to Reconciliation
Recent remarks by Syrian President Bashar Assad during an interview with Sky News Arabia have sparked discussions on the state of relations between Damascus and Ankara. While tensions persist, both countries have been engaging in political talks since last year, facilitated by Iran and Russia. This article explores the complexities of Turkiye-Syria relations, the potential for reconciliation, and the role of external factors in shaping their future.
1. Turkiye’s Priorities: Peace and Security
Turkiye has prioritized the return of 3.6 million Syrian refugees to their homeland, driven by the strain on its economy and approaching local elections. Turkiye’s defense chief, Yasar Guler, emphasized the country’s desire for peace while underscoring its security concerns. Turkiye seeks guarantees for the security of its borders and people before considering withdrawal from Syria.
2. Accusations and Counter-Accusations
Assad’s interview included accusations that Turkiye financially supports armed groups in Syria aiming to overthrow his administration. He referred to Turkish-backed militias, including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, as the source of terrorism in Syria. These allegations further strain relations between the two countries.
3. Slow Progress towards Reconciliation
Despite the tensions, experts suggest that Turkiye continues to inch towards reconciliation with the Syrian regime. The anticipated visit of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Turkiye, along with a meeting of foreign ministers from Turkiye, Russia, Iran, and Syria, holds the potential to rekindle the reconciliation process. However, current considerations such as economic concerns and the war in Ukraine limit the time both leaders can devote to Syria.
4. Complex Road to Diplomatic Detente
Turkiye’s insistence on creating a 30-km buffer zone along its border, free from Syrian-Kurdish groups, has played a significant role in its continued military presence in northern Syria. Turkiye remains committed to counterterrorism efforts. The coordinator of Levant studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, Oytun Orhan, suggests that Turkiye would not agree to withdraw from Syria without internationally-backed guarantees against Kurdish autonomy in the northern part of the country.
5. Restoring Trust and Overcoming Challenges
To restore trust between Damascus and Ankara, Orhan suggests reviving trade between regime-held and rebel-held areas within Syria. Additionally, reopening the strategic rebel-held M4 highway in Idlib would be a significant step. These measures would alleviate economic challenges faced by the Assad regime and be considered goodwill gestures by Turkiye.
6. Broader Foreign Relations and Implications
The normalization process between Ankara and Damascus is closely tied to Turkiye’s broader foreign relations, particularly with Russia, the US, and Western allies. Recent overtures towards the West, support for Sweden’s NATO accession, uncertainties surrounding the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and Turkiye’s relations with Ukraine may fuel apprehensions within Russia. A shift in Turkiye’s foreign policy could impact the rapprochement process with Syria due to Russia’s strong alliance with the Damascus regime.
7. Dealing with the Refugee Quandary
The issue of Syrian refugees remains divisive, especially with upcoming Turkish mayoral elections in March 2024. Orhan suggests a tempered approach, envisioning new settlements in northern Syria with financial backing from Qatar. These initiatives could provide temporary relief for refugees and be skillfully woven into campaign narratives, offering hope to voters. However, complete repatriation before the elections is deemed impossible.
Turkiye-Syria relations continue to face challenges, but there are signs of progress towards reconciliation. The path to detente is complex, with Turkiye prioritizing peace and security while seeking guarantees for its borders. Restoring trust through economic measures and reopening key transportation routes could pave the way for improved relations. However, broader foreign relations and external factors, particularly Russia’s role, will shape the future of Turkiye-Syria relations.