Omer Onhon

A New Beginning in Syria in 2023?

The Syrian crisis has moved to a new phase in 2022, as I emphasized in previous Syria-related articles, and we can expect even more in 2023.

In this regard, relations with Türkiye are particularly noteworthy.

Back in the first half of the year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that the intelligence organizations of Türkiye and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime were engaged in talks. Since then, things have gained pace.

Most recently, Erdogan shared the idea of holding a trilateral summit between himself, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said that this summit should be preceded by meetings of Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs.

The war in Ukraine has brought about an even more enhanced and diversified kind of working relationship between Türkiye and Russia.

Russia wants Türkiye and Assad to make up. Türkiye appears to have gladly accepted Russia to take the steering wheel and navigate.

On December 28, the Ministers of Defense of Russia, Sergei Shoigu, Türkiye, Hulusi Akar, and Syria, Ali Mahmoud Abbas, met in Moscow. Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan was also present. This was the first meeting of its sort in 11 years.

At this point, let’s take a brief look at Syria.

Assad, who was elected president for a fourth term during last year's elections, controls around just over half of the country. It is his representative who holds the country seat at the United Nations. Despite these, in the eyes of millions of Syrians, Assad is no more than a brutal dictator and the major cause of destruction in Syria. Many in the international community are of the same opinion.

The Syrian economy has been deteriorating since 2011. Out of its pre-war population of 23 million, more than 7 million Syrians have fled their country. Around 7-8 million are internally displaced people (IDPs). According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 14.6 million people are in need of aid, 90 percent live below the poverty line and 80 percent are assessed to be food insecure.

The Syrian pound has diminished to a valueless piece of paper. Electricity and fuel are scarce. Syrian people are up against a real risk of further human tragedies, including famine and pandemic.

Among the main reasons for the 2011 uprising in Syria were widespread corruption and monopoly of the regime over the country’s economic wealth. This situation remains and is even worse today.

Syria needs every drop of its oil to overcome its economic difficulties. But its much-needed natural resources are controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a non-state actor, which uses oil revenues to finance its military and administrative operations.

The Astana trio of Russia, Türkiye and Iran have been shaping Syria for the last few years.

Assad owes remaining in power largely to Russia and Iran. Even though Russia is now occupied in the war in Ukraine and Iran is facing a serious challenge at home, neither country has abandoned its position of influence in Syria.

Türkiye has in recent times engaged (and succeeded to a large extent) to normalize relations with a number of countries in the region with whom ties were sour.

It has now turned to Syria for normalization.

The issues of YPG and return of refugees, both problems with roots in Syria, have direct implications on Türkiye. These issues have become even more important with upcoming elections where Erdogan will be in need of every vote. Many Turks, including staunch government supporters, have criticized Erdogan for his policies in Syria.

Under these circumstances, the Turkish government has opted for a very serious policy shift, from “not with Assad” to “not without Assad”. If Erdogan is able to talk to Assad and attain anything which can be regarded as an achievement, he will claim another major diplomatic success.

Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring but as of today, the losers of the process appear to be the US, Iran and the YPG.

The US has long said that its priority in Syria is to defeat ISIS and to make sure that it stays down. The local partner of the US in its fight against ISIS is the YPG, which is considered a terror organization by Türkiye and regarded by Syrians as a threat to their national unity.

Regarding the American position on Assad, apparently, it does not like him. The “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” is in effect. Just recently, the US included “combatting the Syrian regime's trade of captagon” in the defense spending law signed by President Joe Biden.

As recently as a few days ago, in response to a question by a Turkish journalist, the US State Department Press Office said: “The US will not upgrade its diplomatic relations with the Assad regime and does not support other countries upgrading their relations. The US urges states in the region to consider carefully the atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people over the last decade. The US believes that stability in Syria and the greater region can be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians.”

In any event, despite all the above, I do not doubt that if the US thought it would serve its interests, it would not refrain from engaging Assad.

Türkiye has been very uncomfortable with the presence of the YPG and American support that it receives. The least that Türkiye wants is to push back the YPG at least 30 kilometers from its borders and create a secure zone there.

In order to achieve its objectives, Türkiye has been signaling a new military operation for some time now. The US, which has invested a lot in its local partner the YPG, does not want its investment to be harmed. Albeit for different reasons, Russia also does not want a Turkish operation.

Under these circumstances, Türkiye seems to be willing to reach a solution through talking instead of fighting.

The meeting of the defense minsters in Moscow was an outcome of all these considerations and developments.

Iran was absent from the meeting but it is still very much present in Syria. The Iranians and their proxies have deployed along the Iraq-Syria border, Deir Ezzor province and Abu Kamal border area. These are also areas where ISIS cells operate. They are also among the most targeted by Israel.

Iran would not let go without collecting the dividend of its support to the Assad regime. The position that it will take regarding Türkiye-Assad talks under Russia’s auspices remains to be seen.

Back to talks between the Turks and the Syrians, I expect Syria to request Türkiye to withdraw from its territories (Idlib and so-called operation areas) and stop supporting armed groups.

Türkiye in return would insist on pushing the YPG away from the border. The replacement of the YPG militia by the regime soldiers along the borders would hopefully to lead to the weakening of the YPG and American presence. This would work well both for the Turks and the Assad regime.

What happens with the YPG and what will be the place of the Kurds in the future of Syria will need an answer. At some point I would expect the YPG to be also involved somewhere in the general framework of talks and negotiations which would mean including the Americans as well.

Türkiye would be very keen to agree on a roadmap for the return of Syrians to their homeland, but this may be very complicated on a number of accounts.

There are many topics and subtopics to discuss and so many problems to solve.

For example, among major problems to be dealt with is what happens with the Syrian National Army and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Will the regime guarantee their safety? Will there be an amnesty by the regime? Will Türkiye be willing to become a lifelong host to Syrian opposition fighters who refuse to live under Assad rule?

We should bear in mind that all that will take place in a very troubled country located in a very troubled neighborhood where everything can turn out to be related, even if they are unrelated.

The trilateral meeting of the ministers of defense of Türkiye, Syria and Russia was not the end but the beginning of a very difficult process entailing many problems, which have accumulated over the past 11 years.