August 17, 2022
Protests took place in the northwest of Syria after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusgolu last week declared that he had briefly met with his Syrian counterpart in Belgrade nine months ago and had discussed a possible reconciliation between the Assad regime and the opposition. Some opposition supporters went to the extreme of burning the Turkish flag in response, while the Syrian Interim Government issued a statement calling for everyone to calm down and apologizing for the burning of the flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to prop up Bashar Assad. He is encouraging the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to talk to Assad to fend off a proposed Turkish incursion, while also pushing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cooperate with Damascus on answering Ankara’s security concerns, including mentioning the Adana Agreement. Turkey and Syria signed this accord in 1998 following the expulsion of Abdullah Ocalan from Syria. Through this deal, Turkey can chase terrorists 8 km into Syrian territory. Could an extension to it mean Putin and Assad agreeing to the safe zone Turkey has talked about for some time?
Assad’s talks with the Kurds have not gone anywhere and probably will not. To start with, the Syrian army cannot, under any conditions, face off with the Turkish military. Hence, Assad cannot offer the SDF the protection it seeks. On the other hand, the Kurds are no fools — they know they have no real prospects with Assad. They know he will never keep his word. The scenario that former US envoy to the Global Coalition Against Daesh Brett McGurk outlined to end the war in 2019, by which Assad reconciles with the Kurds, does not seem to work out. This is why Putin is now talking to Erdogan about normalizing with Assad.
Erdogan currently needs all the help he can get. His popularity is sinking due to Turkey’s high inflation, worsening economic situation and the presence of 3.7 million Syrian refugees. A stunt against the Kurds in Syria should give him a boost with his electorate. However, Turkey will not conduct its operation unless it gets a green light from either the US or Russia. Putin is now proposing coordination with Assad as an alternative to an incursion.
Though Turkish-Syrian intelligence cooperation has not stopped regardless of the animosity between the two leaders, it has not led to any breakthrough in bilateral relations. It is difficult for Erdogan to normalize with Assad as he would lose credibility. Being the main backer of the Syrian opposition, the Turkish president cannot just pull the plug on Idlib.
His own constituency has been hearing for so long the narrative of the need to support the Syrian opposition and the fact that Assad and his regime are ruthless criminals. Can he change course all of a sudden? How could he then justify having accepted millions of refugees? Meanwhile, Assad has no intention of allowing the refugees to return.
The US somehow accepted the Assad-Kurdish talks; however, they should have opposed them and instead encouraged Kurdish-Turkish talks. This could help Erdogan regain the conservative Kurdish electorate domestically. He has to remember that it was the Kurdish vote that allowed Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas to snatch Istanbul and Ankara, respectively, from him in the 2019 mayoral elections.
Though the general mood in Turkey is now more in favor of confronting the PKK than for peace talks, a breakthrough with the Kurds might help Erdogan regain some of the Kurdish constituency. After all, the Kurds in Syria should be realistic and recognize that the only sustainable scheme is for them to share power with the Arab population and make the local councils more representative by removing the control of the “kadros” and allowing elected officials to assume their role.
The US, on the other hand, would be better off if, instead of letting Russia broker the talks on Syria’s northeast, it brought its two allies, the Kurds and the Turks, together and convinced them that talking to each other is better than talking to Assad. The Syrian leader would end up stabbing both in the back. And they would be better off finding a settlement now.
Erdogan is in a precarious situation as he might lose next year’s elections. Polls have shown that he is losing out in head to heads with five other contenders. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition party CHP, has pledged to normalize with Assad and to agree with him on the “voluntary return” of refugees, which will most likely be anything but.
According to a July report by European Council on Foreign Relations Turkish specialist Asli Aydintasbas, Europe should make sure that, in this eventuality, any normalization takes place in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, there is no way that Assad will comply with this resolution. Hence, it would be better for Europe and the US to prepare for a possible change in Turkey’s leadership by making sure a deal is struck now that will alienate Assad. They should stress to the new leadership in Ankara — if there is a change in the next elections — that any rapprochement with Assad will affect the country’s relations with the US and Europe and may be subject to sanctions.
The Turkish position on Syria is of prime importance to the conflict. If Ankara pulls the plug on Idlib, the stronghold of the opposition, and allows an incursion by Assad, then the world will witness a new level of carnage. The people in Idlib are not reconcilable with the regime. Hence, they will fight to the death knowing they have no place to go.
If Ankara pulls the plug on Idlib and allows an incursion by Assad, then the world will witness a new level of carnage.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Therefore, the US and the West should approach Turkey’s relations with Syria in a very strategic manner. They should remove their tacit agreement to the Assad-SDF negotiations and direct their Kurdish partners to talk to Turkey instead. An agreement with the Kurds of the northeast would likely allow Erdogan to mend, to a certain extent, his deteriorating relations with the Kurdish constituency at home. To ensure the sustainability of this agreement, the US and Europe should make it clear that, whoever wins the presidency in June 2023, normalization with the Assad regime will not be tolerated.
The US and Europe should act now to steer the course of events before it is too late by putting in place a sustainable agreement between Turkey and the Kurds of northeast Syria that will prevent any new military operation by Ankara.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.
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