Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Enormous Obstacles to Erdogan-Assad Reconciliation Deal

In recent weeks, considerable speculation has focused on whether Türkiye might be on the verge of a game-changing re-engagement and normalization with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

The summit held in Moscow on December 28, which convened the Syrian and Turkish military and intelligence chiefs was a major development and the highest-level contact between the two governments since 2011. Those conversations were described as “constructive” and within days, media reporting claimed plans were already in place for a meeting of foreign ministers in mid-January. That next step was intended to pave a path for a presidential meeting shortly thereafter.

On the surface, this latest flurry of engagement with Assad’s regime is a major development within Syria’s nearly 12-year-old crisis. As the sole remaining backer and guarantor of the Syrian civil, political, and armed opposition, a wholesale Turkish re-engagement with Damascus would be a game-changer.

What has changed more recently is Türkiye’s impending elections, scheduled for May or June this year. Few issues have emerged in polling as more potentially impactful on the outcome than the perceived strains imposed on the Turkish people and economy by Syrian refugees. Suffering from the effects of an inflation rate of nearly 90%, Turks have turned on refugees as a scapegoat.

The fact that Erdogan is mirroring such sentiments today is therefore far from surprising, and neither is his primary vehicle for doing so: countering the PKK. Erdogan has been angling to launch a new incursion into northeastern Syria against the SDF, focused on the towns of Kobani, Manbij, and Tel Rifaat. Until now, Russia’s refusal to greenlight such an operation appears to have stalled Erdogan’s plans, but at the meeting in Moscow, it was the topic Türkiye’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was most keen to focus on.

Russia’s role as facilitator is similarly predictable, given the uniquely inter-dependent — and complicated — relationship between Moscow and Ankara, over Syria and much more. With Russia’s war in Ukraine a continued disaster thanks in large part to the extensive assistance provided to Kyiv by the US and allies, Putin is aiming to drive a wedge between Türkiye and the West and deal a strategic blow to NATO, potentially forcing a US military withdrawal from Syria.

Russia therefore appears to be dangling some form of anti-SDF carrot in front of Erdogan, as a condition for normalizing ties with Assad. If Russia were to succeed in flipping Türkiye on Syria, the knock-on effects could also complicate the mostly useful role Türkiye has played over Ukraine, further challenging the geopolitical scales currently in the US and NATO’s favor.

Despite the recent flurry of media reports and the many public statements emanating from Ankara, it is important to take a deep breath and take perspective. That the Turkish government decided to participate in the Moscow summit and is talking so openly about engaging Assad’s regime is not altogether surprising and it doesn’t represent a complete policy change either – merely an elevation of existing policy. In fact, Türkiye’s Syria policy decisively shifted in mid-2016, when President Erdogan dropped the goal of overthrowing Assad and prioritized counterterrorism and border security instead. Türkiye has made no secret of this changed policy focus.

The timing of recent developments has everything to do with Turkish domestic politics, not Syria per se. While Putin and Assad would naturally be delighted, the impending Turkish elections and tight competition between Erdogan’s AK Party and the CHP-led opposition bloc means all three sides now share a temporary interest in changing the tone of the public conversation. But if an opening has been revealed toward a complete Turkish rapprochement with Damascus, it will take much longer than a few months before we see it reached. The obstacles to a comprehensive deal are far too cumbersome. In all likelihood, Erdogan is well aware of this and quite content to play things along. Merely signaling a changed policy may be enough.

In terms of obstacles, the issue of refugees is most significant. Assuming Erdogan is principally motivated to re-engage with Assad’s regime by a perceived need to achieve a large-scale return of Syrian refugees to Syria, one is confronted with the inescapable reality that the 3.5 million Syrians in Türkiye fled Syria in fear of the regime. The idea that a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation would create conditions in which Syrians would return to a Syria with a fully re-empowered Assad regime is a fantasy.

The prospect for a meaningful and game-changing deal between Türkiye and Assad’s regime also begins to fall apart when one considers the other priority in Ankara: countering the PKK. The problem here is that the Assad regime’s core underlying condition for engagement with Türkiye has long been and continues to be a Turkish military disengagement from Syria. Türkiye’s laser-like focus on getting Damascus to turn forcefully against the SDF through a “counterterrorism” lens is further undermined by Assad’s counter demand: that Türkiye label all armed groups across northwestern Syria as terrorist organizations and treat the northwest region as a “terror zone.”

For these reasons, Türkiye’s number one ask here — for a Turkish incursion or Russian-sponsored regime crackdown on the SDF — does not look to be a realistic one. If Ankara were willing to accept that hard truth, a unilateral intervention around any or all of Kobani, Tel Rifaat, and Manbij would almost instantly kill the track of re-engagement with Damascus, thereby weakening Erdogan’s electoral standing at home.

At the end of the day, the recent elevation of contact between Türkiye and Assad’s regime represents the latest phase of a particularly long process that began in mid-2016. The subsequent surge in speculation about the framework of a grand deal and the prospects for a comprehensive shift in Türkiye’s posture in Syria has been driven not by facts or logic, but by the near-term interest of all actors involved to present a narrative of major change. Erdoğan is acting in his own self-interest; Russia is ever the opportunist; and Assad will continue to play hard ball, safe in the knowledge that his departure is no longer in the cards. In fact, the regime has made it very clear in recent days that it has no interest in giving Erdogan any electoral favors and that any progress in dialogue will depend on a full Turkish withdrawal from Syria.

Ultimately, the obstacles to a game-changing deal are enormous, and insurmountable within a period of a few months.