ANKARA: Remarks by Syria’s President Bashar Assad during an interview with Sky News Arabia recently have sparked discussions on whether this has damaged improving relations between Damascus and Ankara.
In the interview, Assad rejected any meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and suggested that Erdogan’s motive for seeking talks was aimed at legitimizing Turkiye’s presence in Syria. “Why should I and Erdogan meet? To have soft drinks?” Assad quipped.
Reacting to Assad’s comments, Turkiye’s defense chief, Yasar Guler, emphasized Turkiye’s desire for peace while underscoring its security concerns. “Turkiye sincerely wants peace, but we also have sensitivities. It is unthinkable for us to withdraw without guaranteeing the security of our borders and our people. I believe that the Syrian president will act more reasonably on this issue,” Guler remarked.
Turkiye has prioritized the return of 3.6 million Syrian refugees to their homeland mainly due to the approaching local elections. The main concern of voters is the strain being placed on Turkiye’s economy by hosting millions of Syrians.
In the interview, Assad also accused Turkiye of financially supporting various armed groups in Syria which were attempting to overthrow his administration.
“Terrorism in Syria is made in Turkiye,” Assad said during the interview, referring to Turkish-backed militias including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.
Despite these tensions, Turkiye and Syria have been engaging in political talks since last year, especially between their defense and foreign ministers.
Discussions have been facilitated by Iran and Russia, aiming to thaw relations between the two neighbors. In May, ministers from both sides agreed to outline a roadmap for improving ties. Damascus, however, asserts that this roadmap should incorporate a timetable for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria, as a prerequisite for further progress in talks.
Despite Assad’s harsh rhetoric, experts suggest that Turkiye continues to inch, in slow motion, toward reconciliation with the Syrian regime. The anticipated visit of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Turkiye, along with a meeting of the foreign ministers from the quartet — Turkiye, Russia, Iran and Syria — holds the potential to rekindle the Turkiye-Syria rapprochement process.
“Even though Syria continues its significance in the foreign policy agenda of both countries, neither Putin nor Erdogan currently can devote greater time to Syria because of different considerations,” Prof. Emre Ersen, an expert on Russia-Turkiye relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, told Arab News.
“Ankara seems to be focused on fixing its relations with the West due to economic concerns, while the war in Ukraine is dominating the Russian foreign policy agenda. Turkish-Russian relations have also become somewhat frostier in the last few months due to Ankara’s close relations with the (Ukraine President Volodymyr) Zelensky government and Moscow’s decision to withdraw from the grain deal.”
For Ersen, this means that the reconciliation process might take a little longer.
“It should also be kept in mind that Putin’s leverage over Assad has been significantly weakened following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Assad’s latest words could also be regarded as a sign of this situation,” he said.
Nevertheless, the road to diplomatic detente remains complex. Turkiye’s insistence on creating a 30-km buffer zone along its border, free from Syrian-Kurdish groups, has played a significant role in their continued military presence in northern Syria with around 5,000 to 10,000 troops. Erdogan stated on July 17 that Turkiye is committed to remaining in these areas due to ongoing counterterrorism efforts.
Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Levant studies at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, thinks that Turkiye would not agree to withdraw from Syria until it obtains internationally-backed guarantees against any Kurdish drive for autonomy in the northern part of the war-torn country.
“Ankara gives priority to agree on a joint roadmap and implement confidence-building measures before any decision of withdrawal. The latest statement of Assad signifies a retreat in the dialogue process,” he told Arab News.
Orhan suggests that the way to restore trust between Damascus and Ankara would be to revive trade between regime-held and rebel-held areas, and between regions within the country. In addition, the parties should also agree to open the strategic rebel-held M4 highway in Idlib connecting the Mediterranean coast with Aleppo and other areas in the northern provinces.
“Rather than insisting on prerequisites that Ankara categorically rejects under current circumstances, such steps would alleviate economic challenges that (the) Assad regime currently faces and would be considered as goodwill gestures by Ankara — important steps to overcome the longstanding trust deficit between the parties,” he said.
However, the broader normalization process between Ankara and Damascus is inextricably tied to Turkiye’s broader foreign relations, notably with Russia, the US, and Western allies.
“Turkiye’s recent overtures toward the West, its support for Sweden’s NATO accession, uncertainties surrounding the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and even the return of key figures from the Azov regiment to Ukraine … might well fuel apprehensions within Russia,” cautions Orhan.
“If all these steps result in a foreign policy shift from (the) Turkish side, it could also lead to the collapse of Turkiye’s rapprochement process with Syria due to the Russian factor, that is the strongest ally of (the) Damascus regime,” he added.
Meanwhile, how to deal with the country’s refugees continues to cause division, heightened now because of the upcoming Turkish mayoral elections in March 2024. Orhan suggests the government should adopt a tempered approach.
While the refugee quandary played a pivotal role in previous local elections, with opposition candidates securing victories in major urban centers, the upcoming contest could witness incremental gestures to address the issue without committing to sweeping decisions.
Orhan envisions a scenario where new settlements, bolstered by financial backing from the Qatar government, could materialize in northern Syria. Such initiatives, aimed at providing temporary relief for refugees, could be skillfully woven into campaign narratives, kindling hope among voters. The prospect of complete Syrian repatriation before the elections, he concedes, remains impossible.
For the past few weeks, Ankara has intensified its deportations, with thousands of Syrians being abruptly sent to northern Syria where many do not have any connections. The move is a part of Erdogan’s pledge, made after his recent election victory, to send 1 million Syrian refugees back home.