There were high hopes not so long ago that Turkish-Syrian relations might be revived. This hope will not vanish for good, but an early recovery is not in sight.
The relations between these two countries were strained for decades. They started to improve when then-Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer decided to attend the June 2000 funeral of late Syrian President Hafez Assad. Extremely warm relations ensued in 2009, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad spent their holiday in Turkiye with their families. But the so-called Arab Spring changed the direction of the wind.
In the early months of the Arab Spring, Turkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party thought that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated belt of countries all the way from Tunisia to Syria, via Libya and Egypt, was taking shape and Turkiye could become the leader of this belt. But this dream was quickly shattered. Rather than becoming the leader of these regional neighbors, it became a country that had problems with almost all of them.
Turkiye carried out military operations in Syria at various points. Now, we are at the stage of debating the conditions of its withdrawal from these territories.
Assad’s repeated statements indicate that he regards Turkiye’s withdrawal from the north of Syria as a condition for resuming normal relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, have covered a lot of ground in improving their relations with Turkiye. But Syria has as a condition the withdrawal of the Turkish military forces from its territory, as well as Ankara cutting the support it has extended to extremists and other organizations. Assad has said that, if a suitable environment emerges after Turkiye’s withdrawal from Syrian territory, it would be natural to go back to the normal relations of the past.
On the Turkish side, Defense Minister Yasar Guler hinted that there was no change in Turkiye’s attitude to withdrawing from Syria. He referred to the talks held at various levels between the two countries. He mentioned Turkiye’s sensitivities regarding its border security and the security of the Turkish people living in areas close to the Syrian border. He added that he expected that Assad would act reasonably, suggesting he would display a conciliatory attitude.
The meetings between Turkiye and Syria started when the present Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan was the head of the Turkish intelligence service. Therefore, he is aware of the background to these talks. He is expected to contribute to the future negotiations in his new capacity. Russian and Iranian representatives have also participated in the previous meetings held in Russia.
One of the most important effects of Turkiye’s withdrawal from Syria would be the fate of the extremists cornered in the north of Idlib. The main terrorist organization there was the Al-Nusra Front, which was established as an extension of Al-Qaeda. It later disrupted its ties with Al-Qaeda and called itself Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
Ahrar Al-Sham is another militant group operating in Idlib and it cooperates from time to time with HTS. Neither HTS nor Ahrar Al-Sham are part of the Turkiye-sponsored Free Syrian Army, which was renamed in 2017 as the Syrian National Army.
These groups have changed their names several times, but UN Security Council Resolution 2254 makes a comprehensive reference, calling on member states “to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed by Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or Daesh, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council, and as may further be agreed.” This definition does not leave out any group.
In case Turkiye withdraws from the north of Syria, the Kurds, who are well organized and equipped thanks to the strong support of the US, will further change the power balance in their favor. The area covered by the US-supported Kurds corresponds to roughly a third of the entire Syrian territory.
Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish cooperation would have been the best compromise for the north of Syria, but Turkiye could not utilize this opportunity to its advantage, partly because of American opposition.
One of Turkiye’s misfortunes is that two important players, namely the US and Russia, are strongly supporting the Kurdish cause. Russia is trying to integrate the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, into the Syrian army as a separate brigade, but this plan faces several hurdles.
A similar problem will arise regarding the fighters that are currently serving in the so-called Syrian National Army. Will they be dispersed or integrated one way or another into Syrian society? If they are dispersed, to what extent will the Syrian population admit them? This will be a major issue for Turkiye as well as for Syria.
Many problems are the result of Turkiye’s Syria policy. Therefore, Ankara will have to make more efforts. The participation of Syria in the Arab League will give Damascus an opportunity to blame Turkiye in a forum where the latter will be absent.
Syria’s attendance in the Arab League meetings after an interval of 12 years puts an end to its isolation. Therefore, Damascus will need less cooperation with Turkiye and Assad may grow more intransigent.
Whichever way you look at it, the improvement of Turkish-Syrian relations is becoming an uphill task.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party.