Omer Onhon

Could There Be a Breakthrough in Syria?

Türkiye’s sharp shift in its Syria policy has become the centerpiece of the recent diplomatic traffic regarding Syria.

On December 28, the ministers of defense of Russia, Syria and Türkiye met in Moscow for the first time in 12 years. Afterwards, the highest-level Turkish officials laid down a roadmap, according to which, following the defense ministers meeting, ministers of foreign affairs would meet soon and then the process would hopefully be crowned with a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

As it turns out, it is unlikely that things will happen as quickly as the Turkish side hoped.

Assad has declared that “first, occupation and support for terrorism should end” meaning that Turkish troops should withdraw from Syria and Türkiye should stop all its support to the Syrian opposition.

Later on, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad stated that “unless conditions are met, we cannot talk about establishing normal ties with Türkiye” and “a meeting between Assad and the Turkish leadership depends on removing the reasons for the dispute.”

Türkiye’s major problems with regard to Syria are at least 3.7 million Syrians on its territories and security issues, basically, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

The Turkish government’s Syria policy has been widely criticized in Türkiye even within the ranks of the ruling AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party).

The elections in Türkiye are to be held in a few months, maybe in May or the latest in June. Only a few months are left and the government wants to do something concrete, or give the impression that it will be able to do something concrete if it is re-elected. It aims to appease the electorate and deprive the opposition of an important card of criticism.

Russia and Türkiye, after dangerously confronting each other in Syria on opposing sides, developed their relations into a cooperative one. The two countries and Iran formed the Astana process which changed the flow of events in Syria.

Since then, relations between Türkiye and Russia have developed further, extending to strategic areas, such as air defense systems and nuclear power stations. The war in Ukraine has led to a further expansion of the scope and nature of cooperation.

Despite words of appreciation for Türkiye’s role regarding the war in Ukraine, its relationship with Russia has made its western allies unhappy and suspicious at the same time.

Russia has always tried to convert or at least neutralize Türkiye in Syria and it now has its chance. Developments around Russia’s war on Ukraine and the upcoming elections in Türkiye have pushed both countries to take steps which, maybe, they would not have taken if circumstances were different.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, by facilitating a Türkiye-Syria rapprochement, hopes to gain on several counts. Supporting Erdogan’s election campaign by creating favorable conditions for one of the most important issues in Turkish politics, preventing a new military operation, which would lead to tensions also with Russia, causing further suspicion and friction between Türkiye and its western allies and pushing the US out of Syria are among them.

And where does Assad stand? Around a third of Syria is outside of his control, and the parts which he does are deeply troubled. Suweida and Daraa have been centers of serious disturbances and security problems. The economic situation is extremely volatile. Except for the privileged few, the majority of the Syrian people are at a point where they can almost barely survive.

The traditional Syrian elite and the middle class have been largely replaced by a new crowd. Together with the Assad family and other regime figures, these mostly war profiteers are the ones who now have their hands on whatever remains of the Syrian economy and wealth. Drugs, land and property confiscation, black market and smuggling make up the bulk of the present-day Syrian economy.

Assad may be militarily weaker compared to major actors involved in Syria, but he enjoys Russia’s support and protection, which is very unlikely to change despite the war in Ukraine.

Assad probably feels that despite ill feelings against him, the international community is getting used to the idea that he is here to stay. He may think that Arab countries have come back and others, including Türkiye, will eventually join the caravan.

With Russia’s push, the Assad regime is talking to Türkiye, but it has put forward conditions for moving further with the rapprochement process.

It is also worth noting that Assad also called on its protector Russia “not to impose”, but to “coordinate” with him. He said “for the meetings (with Türkiye) to be fruitful and for the three countries to reach tangible goals, the trilateral meetings should be based on prior coordination and planning between Syria and Moscow.”

Russia has left Iran outside of its recent diplomatic movements, but Iran has not stepped aside. In January, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Damascus and Ankara. He stated that Iran was “happy with the dialogue between Syria and Türkiye”. This statement should be read with the addition of “to the extent that Iran can influence the developments and as long as they serve its interests.”

A few days ago, Putin and Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi talked on the telephone on various issues. Iranian press reported Raisi as emphasizing the centrality of the Astana process in efforts to resolve the Syrian issues. That means “do not leave us out” and there is probably an unsaid “or else” to that.

The US is the other major element of the complicated Syria equation. US cooperation with YPG/SDF continues to be one of the most troublesome issues in Türkiye-US relations.

“The US has no plans to abandon the SDF, as this Kurdish-led force is the only combat-credible, capable, and committed partner in Northeast Syria willing to partner with the US on a daily basis to continue this fight against ISIS,” a high-level Pentagon official reiterated.

The US has also voiced its opposition to attempts to reconcile with Assad. The US position is not specific to, but includes Türkiye’s recent moves in this direction.

Last week, the Turkish foreign minister made his first official visit to Washington since the Biden administration took office and met his counterpart, Antony Blinken. Among the various issues they discussed was Syria.

Looking at the joint statement that was released after their meeting, I would say that they did not go beyond repeating their positions. There was no breakthrough on Syria issues, or other issues for that matter. If there was, we would know it, especially at a time when the Turkish government is very keen on informing its public about anything that can be presented as “another diplomatic success”.

Looking at the other Syrian parties involved in the conflict, both the Syrian opposition (including the Syrian National Army) and YPG (Kurds) have their reasons to be concerned. They are all on high alert to protect themselves and their interests.

There have been demonstrations in several opposition-held towns in northeast Syria. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has rejected any reconciliation with the regime. So have other armed groups. As if to press their point, these groups have resumed military operations against regime forces in parts of Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia.

The international community has been calling for a political solution in Syria, based on Security Council Resolution 2254. But there is no progress for reasons which are well known by now. Involvement of many actors with different and mostly conflicting interests makes a very complicated problem even more so.

At this juncture, a true reconciliation between Türkiye and Assad could be the critical breakthrough.

The most important element here is the extent to which Erdogan is willing to carry his “pragmatism” and the extent to which various parties, including his counterpart in Syria, will trust his intentions.

On Assad’s part, he himself is a major problem and obstacle for progress and the political solution. He is despised and seen as a war criminal by many Syrians and an important part of the international community. The only solution Assad pursues is one that will keep him and his regime in power with absolute authority.

Under the present circumstances, the Türkiye-Syria “process” may be a very long one.