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We May Be Witnessing the Settings for a New Stage in Turkey-Syria Relations

We May Be Witnessing the Settings for a New Stage in Turkey-Syria Relations

Wednesday, 10 August, 2022 - 07:15

The war in Syria has stopped but the crisis in the country have not ended.

Assad, who as been elected as president for the fourth time (but not everyone is convinced that these elections have rendered him the legitimacy which he claims) does not control all of Syria. More than 2/5 of Syria is under the control of Hayat Tahrir-i Sham (in Idlib), Syrian Democratic Forces (in North East and South East Syria) and Turkey’s operation areas controlled by the Syrian opposition (in the North).

On the international front, Syria has recently scored some gains. This is especially the case in relations with Arab countries where high level diplomatic visits and re-opening of Embassies in Damascus are happening. The most important achievement of the Assad regime in this area would be to be able to claim back its seat in the Arab League. Many League members support the return of Syria but there are also those which continue to object.

When it comes to economy, Syria is in dire straits. The majority of the Syrian people live at a point where they can barely survive the day. Millions of Syrians are categorized by the United Nations as in need of humanitarian assistance.

Up until 2011, the Assad family took the lion’s share in almost every business initiative. A major trigger for the 2011 uprising was this family and regime centered economic system and widespread corruption. Throughout all these years, this system has not changed. It is even worse now.

Syria’s major source of income is oil. Syria’s oil fields are now under the control of the YPG, which is known to sell oil well below market rates (as low as 15-20 dollars a barrel) to finance itself.

One of the oil companies (Gulfsands) which had to declare “force majeure" and leave the country in 2011, suggested an initiative, whereby, “international oil companies would return to operations in northeast Syria and part of revenues from oil sales would be deposited in an internationally administered fund to be used to finance humanitarian, economic and security projects across the country for the benefit of all Syrian people”.

Such initiatives could help create a much needed source for much needed humanitarian support and deprive non-state actors and terrorist organizations of a major income.

Turkey, by virtue of geography and circumstances, is a major actor in Syria. It has long aimed to set what it calls a safe zone in an area that goes (from the borderline) to a depth of 35 km inside Syria. It would serve to keep the YPG (as well as threat elements such as the regime and ISIS) away from borders and to create an area where Syrians in Turkey (3.7 million) can return to.

Turkish armed forces conducted four major operations in the period 2016-2020 and achieved its objectives but partially. Turkey attributes the shortcomings to the US and Russia not keeping their promises to convince YPG to withdraw from their locations in return for ceasefire. YPG is still present in places like Manbij and Tal Rifat.

A few weeks ago President Erdogan signaled a new operation to complete unfinished business. This has yet to be materialized.

Almost all actors in Syria, including those who are at each others throat (Russia, the United States, the Assad regime, Iran, Arab countries) are against a new Turkish military operation.

Turkey has not been able to get the support it hoped from its allies (the United States and other NATO members) and from its regional cooperation partners (Russia, Iran and Arab countries).

The country that matters most in this context is Russia. The special relations that have emerged over the past few years between Turkey and Russia have gained a new momentum with the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Russia claims that it understands Turkey's concerns about terrorism emanating from Syria. At the same time, it encourages the Assad regime and YPG to join forces and establish a united front against Turkey.

It would be useful to recall that in recent years Turkey and Russia have physically fought each other in places such as Libya and Syria. In Libya, Turkish drones have buried the much advertised Russian Pantsir system.

Now in Syria, unless absolutely necessary, I think Turkey would not want to confront Russia once again. On the other hand, Russia will not want to lose the "friendship" of Turkey, a NATO member, especially at a time when it has been declared a rogue state and an outcast by many in the world. It is more likely that these two countries will seek ways to appease each other in Syria.

The crisis in Syria since 2011 has become the heaviest burden on President Erdogan’s shoulders in terms of Turkey’s international relations with many domestic implications.

Syrian refugees in Turkey have become a matter for internal politics. When, how and if Syrians will go back to their homeland has become a matter of fierce debate between the government and the opposition parties.

I believe that the solution to the issue of Syrians in Turkey (officially referred to as Syrians under temporary protection) lies at the source. In other words, the voluntary return of Syrians depends on the conditions in the place where they are supposed to return. If they have doubts and concerns about their safety when they are back and if some economic opportunities and incentives are not provided, I do not think voluntary return will be possible anytime soon. No doubt, these will be expected to be under the protection and assurance umbrella of the United Nations and the international community.

The Turkish government has adopted a “pragmatic approach” in its foreign policy recently and has mended ties with a number of countries in the region. Syria’s policy may also take its share from this recent approach.

There has been contact between the two countries through their intelligence agencies. On his way back from Sochi over the weekend, President Erdogan reaffirmed these contacts. Apparently, Russia is the matchmaker.

The question is, after all that has happened, can the two countries or rather two leaders bury their hatchets and resume a normal relationship? Could contacts between intelligence agencies move to a next stage at the political level?

There are many difficulties but also some factors which would encourage a process. Among them are; elections are less then a year away and Erdogan would like to free himself of a big problem. On the other hand, Assad is trying to make a comeback to the international community and keeping Turkey at bay would be an important achievement.

On the difficulties side, the list is too long. To site a few examples; there are too many actors in the equation and they all have different priorities and agendas. Then, the Assad regime itself is a problem generator. How will that be handled? Then, there is the Syrian opposition, including armed groups, with whom Turkey has been close for many years. How will they be placed in the event of a new era of relations between Turkey and Syria? The list goes on.

In any case, despite all difficulties and fragilities, a new era in relations may be in sight. But just may be.

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