A Turkish-Syrian Reconciliation in Sight?
A Turkish-Syrian Reconciliation in Sight?
On his way back from Sochi on August 6, President Tayyib Erdoğan revealed that intelligence organizations of Türkiye and Syria were meeting.
His Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu stated at a press conference on 11 August, that Türkiye supports a political reconciliation between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. The Minister went on to say that about a year ago, when he was in Belgrade to attend an international conference, he had a quick chat in the corridors with the Syrian Foreign Minister (Faisal Miktad) who was also there to participate in the same conference.
Journalists, commentators and opposition politicians in Türkiye immediately engaged in debates as to what really happened and the pros and cons of making it up with the Assad regime.
Yesterday, on his way back from his visit to Ukraine, President Erdoğan made another groundbreaking statement. Without making a direct reference to reconciliation with Assad, he said Türkiye is ready to move forward in relation with the Assad regime. Referring to what his unofficial coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli said, he made it clear that he is ready to carry the contacts with Syria to a next level, meaning the political level.
It was striking to hear Erdoğan say that it was the US which “fed terror in Syria, provided terror organizations with thousands of trucks of weapons and equipment and received terrorists in the White House”. He also included other Allies and EU countries as terror supporters, by referring to them as “coalition forces”.
On the other hand, Erdoğan praised Russia as a partner in combatting terrorism. “In every step that we take in Syria, our security forces, intelligence agencies, and Defense Ministry are in contact,” he said.
At this point, the role of Russia, and Türkiye-Russia relations need to be recalled. Russia is the key country in Syria. It was Russia’s support in the political field, in particular in the UNSC, and its direct military intervention in 2015 which changed the course of the war in Syria in Assad’s favor.
Assad knows very well that without Russia, his chances of survival are slim. This and the fact that Russia has well established itself in Syria with all its bases and military hardware, no solution without it seems feasible.
Türkiye and Russia have a complicated relationship with sharp differences and also mutual benefits. The “kind of special relationship” between Türkiye and Russia which has been there for the last few years, has become even more so after the war in Ukraine. It seems that the two countries should strongly prefer to do things in Syria without confronting each other.
Why did President Erdoğan decide to adopt a sharply different Syria policy at this point of time?
To begin with, elections are less than a year away. Erdoğan is facing a number of problems in Türkiye, including a serious economic situation and a grey picture on his chances of being re-elected. He wants to free himself of as many problems as he can.
The most important foreign policy issue with domestic implications is the crisis in Syria and security and 3.7 million Syrians in Türkiye are at the forefront.
Clearly, no matter how it evolves and whether there will be a happy ending or not, we are into a new era in Türkiye-Syria relations.
The road forward is a difficult and rocky one. A quick look at some of the major problems;
-There are too many outside actors including Russia, Türkiye, the US, Iran, Israel, and Arab countries. In most cases, they have different agendas, conflicting interests, and priorities.
-Iran in particular is problematic with its ambitions and ideological/strategic policies.
-There are dozens of armed groups, tens of thousands of militia, and weapons in Syria. There are also jihadist groups as well as Shiite militia from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This, by itself, is an element that could de-rail any peace effort in many ways.
-There is YPG (Kurds as mostly used) controlling around 35 percent of Syrian territory which holds most of Syria’s oil fields and agricultural land. In terms of the future administrative political system in Syria, they insist on nothing less than what they have now.
-Most of the population in northern Syria, in other parts of the country and those who have fled Syria have been fighting the regime for years. They have lost loved ones and their properties. They have been targeted with chemical weapons and tortured in regime prisons. These people do not see Assad as a partner in peace but as a war criminal who should be prosecuted.
The fury of the people who went on to the streets in northern Syria to protest the statements of the Turkish Foreign Minister was a testament to the sensitivities.
-On Assad’s part, fear of losing his absolute grip on power is a detriment. Back in 2011, Assad was encouraged to carry out some reforms and include people from the opposition in the political system but he did not go this way because of this fear. 11 years onward and his approach has not changed. Among many other examples of this approach are “non-achievements” in the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. Independent observers who are well informed and participate in the meetings of the Committee have made it clear that the regime side is there not to engage in a meaningful and result-oriented negotiation, but merely to appease their Russian sponsors and not appear as the side not coming to the table. In short, the Assad regime still fears that any arrangement for any sort of power-sharing would eventually lead to losing power altogether.
With all these difficulties lying there in the open, if there is a base for a political solution in Syria, I believe that there is. This base is made up of a set of diplomatic initiatives throughout the past 11 years.
These diplomatic initiatives started with the Geneva meeting in June 2012, moved on to the “Vienna Statements” of 2015, and evolved into UNSC resolution 2254. Then, there is the Astana Process and its products.
All the related actors, including Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, have signed up for these diplomatic initiatives at one stage or other, in one way or another.
UNHCR Resolution 2254, even though it was adopted 7 years ago, contains the main parameters and principles as well as a road map for a political solution. These are;
-Preserving territorial integrity of Syria.
-Establishing a viable political system, inclusive and acceptable to opposition, regime supporters, and neutrals alike.
-Disbanding armed militia from all sides.
-Enabling the return of Syrian refugees.
-Improving the humanitarian situation.
-Engaging in economic recovery and reconstruction.
Specifically, the main elements of this road map are;
-Establishing credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance (transition period).
-Drafting a new constitution.
-Holding free and fair elections, with all Syrians, including those outside of Syria, eligible to participate.
The crisis in Syria is very costly in so many ways. I hesitate to say all, but a clear majority of the actors are well aware of the need to bring the crisis to an end. In order to progress, what is needed is political will on the part of the opposing Syrian parties and meaningful support from the international community. A positive movement in Turkish-Syrian relations will be an important aspect of this.