(This piece was originally published in Turkish by Perspektif.)
Lately, there has been an overt increase in the efforts to legitimize the Syrian regime and reintegrate Bashar Al-Assad into international politics following the fraudulent presidential elections held in Syria in May. The process started with some member states greenlighting[i] Syria’s return to the Arab League and continued with some European nations’ attempts[ii] [iii] to restore diplomatic relations with Syria. This process now even includes a natural gas project to deliver Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria directly to Lebanon,[iv] which only serves the efforts to legitimize Bashar Al-Assad in the international arena. Remarkably, Washington has given the green light for the gas project despite its harsh Caesar sanctions on Syria. It seems that Syria will be exempt from the Caesar sanctions in this project. Additionally, a significant normalization process is undergoing between Syria and its southern neighbor, Jordan. After the Syrian Minister of Defense’s recent visit to the Jordanian Chief of Staff in Amman, Jordan reopened all its borders with Syria and recommenced flights between the two countries.[v] Similarly, in his visit to Washington in August, King Abdallah II of Jordan asserted that the Syrian regime will survive, and that European countries and the United States (US) needed to produce a new narrative of the regime’s “behavioral change”[vi] rather than regime change.
Again, on October 3, Assad and the Jordanian King held their first phone call since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.[vii] Moreover, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) has lifted its ban on Syria and reinstated the country in its communication network.[viii] Coordination between INTERPOL and Syria is expected to begin, and the head of INTERPOL is set to visit Damascus soon. Alongside such regional and international developments, discussions on direct dialogue with the Syrian regime have also restarted in Turkey.
The periodically rehashed issue of Turkey holding direct talks with the Syrian regime entered the public agenda after Russia’s intensive targeting of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) in Afrin and Idlib in September. Before and after the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on September 29 in Sochi, some commentators on Turkish TV channels claimed that Turkey needed to directly talk with Al-Assad. An analyst with a military background even said that the problem in Idlib could not be solved without a military operation and Turkey needed to allow Russia to launch an operation in the Idlib province to remove terrorists from the region. Some who advocate for talks with the regime go as far as saying, “Why can Turkey talk with the Taliban but not Al-Assad?” With such arguments, these analysts not only miss the considerable difference between Syria and Afghanistan, but also equated a movement such as the Taliban with the Assad regime.
The pro-Russian commentators have yet to provide a satisfactory explanation as to how the direct talks continuously brought to debates mainly by the Eurasianist faction in the country, will contribute to solving Turkey’s Syria-related problems, and especially how an Idlib taken and militarized by Al-Assad can positively effect Turkey’s security. Instead of thorough and genuine answers, the public hears ambiguous pipe dreams. Aside from the ethical concerns of directly negotiating with Al-Assad, who has long lost his legitimacy, it is highly unclear what Turkey would gain in practice with such a move.
Indeed, states may engage with anyone to achieve their interests, but why should Turkey directly talk with a regime which has handed its country’s keys to Russia and Iran on a silver platter, lost its army in the war, lost control of large areas of its country and borders, has a collapsed economy and is not even the leading actor in the country? In fact, since 2017, Turkey has already had some contact with the regime via Russia through the Astana process. We should remind those who do not find that sufficient that Syrian and Turkish officials (intelligence officers) have held security meetings from time to time without positive outcomes. [ix] Furthermore, what can Bashar Al-Assad give Turkey that Russia, the regime’s main patron, cannot? Under the current circumstances, do those who advocate for a full-fledged direct dialogue or normalization with the regime think that talks with Al-Assad will ensure the security of Turkey’s borders, reverse the gains of the Democratic Union Party/People’s Defense Units (PYD/YPG) in Northeast Syria, or enable the return of the nearly four million Syrians living in Turkey to their home country? We will now turn to scrutinize each of these points.
Turkey’s Border Security
Bashar Al-Assad does not control most of the borders of his country at present, and if he does launch an operation on the Idlib province, millions of people will likely flow to Turkey’s borders. During the Russia and the regime’s operation in 2020, around a million people desperately fled to the Turkish border. Also, the population in Idlib significantly differs from those living in the rest of Syria. Idlib’s pre-war population of 1.5 million[x] reached almost 4 million with Russia and the regime’s military operations that led to their control of the three de-escalation zones being recognized in Astana. People who did not come to terms with the Assad regime in the de-escalation zones captured with military means headed towards Idlib. Thus, the region’s population has grown incrementally. If the regime launches an operation today, people who have already severed all connections with the regime will undoubtedly prefer to leave the country than to live under Al-Assad’s rule. Given the rising racist wave against refugees in Turkey, a new refugee wave will benefit neither Turkey, nor Syrian refugees. Additionally, in an equation where Turkey is not present in the region and the opposition in Idlib is crushed, Iranian-backed militias in Aleppo will likely mobilize near Turkey’s borders, a possibility that poses a severe threat to the country’s security. Therefore, we need to understand that the Russia-regime duo is not a security guarantor for Turkey’s borders, but currently poses a significant threat, something which the 2020 operation has already made clear.
Reversing the PYD/YPG’s Gains
The idea that the PYD/YPG gains in Northeast Syria would be reversed with Turkey’s normalizing its relations with Al-Assad is irrational. Proponents of the idea think that Turkey can normalize relations with the regime, submit Idlib’s keys to Al-Assad, and jointly suffocate the PYD project. In a scenario where the US maintains its military presence in Syria, that is not possible. While it is true that the Biden administration in Washington shifted its strategic focus to Asia and the Middle East is now at the bottom of US priorities, there is no clear indication that the US will withdraw from Syria in the short term. In fact, US financial and military support for the PYD/SDF continues, albeit decelerated. Nevertheless, this situation does not seem to have translated into concrete political gains for the PYD-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. That being said, it is now clear that Washington favors maintaining the status quo[xi] in Northeast Syria. Moreover, it is self-evident that Syria is not very costly for the US, unlike Afghanistan. While President Erdoğan said that the US needed to withdraw from Syria and Iraq,[xii] partly due to failing to meet with US President Joe Biden in New York, this may not be in Turkey’s favor.
The US does not intend to withdraw from Syria in the short run. Still, if it did, the balance in Syria would completely shift towards Russia, and Turkey would be left alone against Russia, which is an unfavorable scenario for Ankara. Besides, we need to keep in mind that the PYD/YPG is not only in contact with the US. In many SDF-controlled regions in Syria, Russia provides a protective umbrella for the organization. We also need to remember that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is also able to achieve mid-range arrangements with Russia when it needs.
Therefore, although many refrain from admitting it, the US presence in Syria serves as a balance for Turkey due to the said issues. However, Turkey could not benefit from this in Idlib. Although US authorities make statements in support of Turkey at the level of discourse, in practice, they do not offer any serious support to Turkey in its Idlib predicament. Due to the deteriorating Turkey-US relations, Ankara is further isolated in the Idlib province.
Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Since the outset of the Syrian war, the opposition in Turkey has interpreted the tragedy as a Western conspiracy, rather than as a people’s demand for better and legitimate governance. Leftist groups ideologically close to Al-Assad also adopted such a reading. Contrary to the expectations for leftists to show solidarity with the oppressed, most leftist movements in Turkey have had a negative attitude in this regard, and consistently delivered the discourse of the supporters of the Syrian regime to the public. Another faction labeled Syrian refugees as a project to cause civil war in Turkey and did not hesitate to make unscrupulous statements, such as “Syrians have not come to Turkey because they were bombed, but rather they were bombed so that they would flee to Turkey.” Moreover, another anti-refugee faction opposes both the refugees’ presence in Turkey on the one hand, and Turkey’s military presence in Syria, which prevents the flow of millions more refugees on the other hand. Those who are bandy about the Syrian refugees living in Turkey prefer to ignore this paradox. According to them, Turkey would withdraw its troops from Idlib and close its border gates, and what happens will happen in Syria. However, the Syrian crisis has shown us that what happens in Syria does not remain in Syria.
Those who keep stirring up hate speech against refugees and are captivated by the idea of returning Syrians to their homes through a normalization process with the Assad regime must know that the idea does not have any practical grounds, aside from the legal and ethical concerns of sending refugees back to a warzone. While anti-refugee discourse may attract votes in Turkey, sending Syrians back is politically unrealistic. Why would refugees return to a Syria where the regime cannot provide people the basic needs of life, returnees are forcibly disappeared by intelligence agents[xiii] and where regime-controlled areas are virtual open-air prisons?
Another issue is that, currently, Al-Assad cannot control over 7 million people even within the country. Similarly, the number of those who fled from Syria one way or another is over 8 million.[xiv] In other words, the regime has no control over more than 15 million Syrians, while the population under Al-Assad’s control is a little over 9 million. Additionally, last year, the regime held a conference in Syria jointly with Russia on the return of refugees, but even the conference’s participants mocked[xv] the idea, saying that people in Syria would leave the country if they found an opportunity. Furthermore, the idea that the regime genuinely desires its dissenters’ return does not match the reality on the ground as many who returned to the country trusting the regime’s guarantees were forcibly disappeared. Reports[xvi] indicate that numerous people were arrested, tortured, forcibly disappeared, or raped after returning to Syria.
Moreover, over the last years, General Jamil al-Hassan, the Head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, said “A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.[xvii]” On the other hand, one of the regime’s infamous generals, Major General Issam Zahreddine said, “to those who fled Syria to another country, I beg you don’t ever return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive or forget. If you know what is good for you, none of you will return. ”[xviii] Such statements clearly demonstrate the regime’s policy on refugees and why refugees do not and will not return to Assad-controlled territories. Contrary to what some claim, what the Syrian regime wants is not the return of its opponents, but to reclaim the territories it lost to the Syrian military opposition. The regime is quite happy with a small population it can control. Furthermore, the longer the war lingers, the more rooted Syrians living in Turkey will become. Thus, given that most Syrian refugees in Turkey will not return to their country, implementing a well-thought and well-planned integration policy is far more rational than normalizing relations with the Assad regime.
Should Turkey Withdraw from Idlib?
An overwhelming majority of those advocating for Turkey’s cooperation with the Syrian regime do not propose this as a genuine political roadmap. The primary motivation behind this proposition is their ideological affinity (of at least some of them) with the Assad regime. There is a faction in Turkey that would be happy with a Baath-like regime in Turkey due to its ideological baggage. The statements of these radically anti-Western and pro-Russia and China commentators reveal that they want to import the Baath model to Turkey.
Those who advocate for cooperation with Bashar Al-Assad overestimate his importance. Currently, the regime does not have authority over large territories in the country’s north and east. Further, the areas it did recapture with Russian and Iranian support suffer from chronic problems, and the country’s army has collapsed. In July, the Dara’a region presented a good example for understanding the army’s situation and the degree of Al-Assad’s control over the country. In Dara’a, when Russia was not involved, regime forces lost many checkpoints[xix] to the opposition in a short while. Therefore, Turkey’s withdrawal from Idlib without a political settlement for the Syrian crisis will not benefit Ankara. Hence, one could argue that the most rational option for Turkey is to preserve the status quo in the region until a political solution can be found to the crisis. Neither can the people in Idlib bear another massacre, nor can Turkey bear new costs. Finally, it does not take a clairvoyant to foresee that after a Turkish withdrawal from Idlib, there will be further demands for it to withdraw from other regions in Syria, meaning Turkey would gradually renounces its claims in Syria.
The Need for Turkey to Adopt a New Syria Policy
There is not much Turkey can gain through normalization with the Assad regime, as discussed above. What Turkey needs is a comprehensive and consistent policy on Syria. Especially in the post-2016 period, Turkey approaches Syria from an intensively security-based perspective, which has caused an inconsistent Syrian policy. The most obvious example of this is Turkey’s diametrically opposed policies east and west of the Euphrates. Turkey has long persistently emphasized Syria’s territorial integrity, which is quite natural and understandable for a country that recently faced a sinister coup attempt. However, while Turkey opposes the PYD’s political project east of the Euphrates, in practice it offers an alternative political project through the opposition factions under its control west of the Euphrates. This attitude creates contradictions in the goals Turkey pursues in Syria. It is for this very reason that Turkey needs to revise its policy on Syria.
Given different regional and international actors’ conflicting interests in Syria, the country’s virtually fragmented structure, and the entirely severed connection between the regime and the majority of its people due to the immense destruction the country has suffered since 2011, Syria’s return to a pre-2011 central governance structure does not seem possible. Instead, considering decentralization as an option can help resolve the Syrian crisis.
In sum, proposing normalization with the Assad regime as a solution to Turkey’s Syria-related problems is based on a narrow ideological worldview rather than a realistic political roadmap. In practice, coming to terms with Al-Assad is merely a project to save the regime. Those who ask “Why do we talk with the Taliban but not Al-Assad?” need to understand that if Al-Assad had control over his country as the Taliban does in Afghanistan, there could be direct talks with him for reasons of realism, setting aside the fact that he is a guilty bloody dictator who lost all legitimacy. Yet, considering the regime’s inability to do anything independently from Russia and Iran and the country’s desperate economic crisis, Turkey is highly unlikely to gain anything from normalizing relations with the Assad regime at this stage.
In short, it is not normalization through direct talks with Al-Assad, but rather a comprehensive and consistent policy on Syria that can positively contribute to solving Turkey’s Syria-related problems.
[i] Ahmed Gomaa, “Egypt, UAE call for rethink of Syria’s expulsion from Arab League”, Al-Monitor, 15.03.2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/03/egypt-uae-calls-syria-arab-league-return-war-region.html
[ii] “Greece and Cyprus preparing to re-open embassies in Syria”, Independent Balkan News Agency, 01.06.2021, https://balkaneu.com/greece-and-cyprus-preparing-to-re-open-embassies-in-syria/
[iii] Vuk Vuksanovic, “Serbia has its reasons for sending ambassador to Syria”, Al-Monitor, 20.07.2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/07/serbia-has-its-reasons-sending-ambassador-syria
[iv] Osama Al Sharif, “Lebanese energy plan includes Syria”, Al-Monitor, 10.09.2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/09/lebanese-energy-plan-includes-syria
[v] Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Jordan fully reopens border crossing with Syria, seeks trade boost”, Reuters, 30.09.2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/jordan-fully-reopens-main-crossing-with-syria-2021-09-29/
[vi] “Why Jordan is Pushing to Normalise Ties with the Syrian Regime”, The Syrian Observer, 06.08.2021, https://syrianobserver.com/features/68630/why-jordan-is-pushing-to-normalise-ties-with-the-syrian-regime.html
[vii] Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Jordan’s Abdullah receives first call from Syria’s Assad since start of conflict”, Reuters, 04.10.2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/jordans-abdullah-receives-first-call-syrias-assad-since-start-conflict-2021-10-03/
[viii] William Christou, “Syria re-added to INTERPOL, risking potential for abuse of dissidents”, The New Arab, 02.10.2021, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/syria-re-added-interpol-risking-potential-abuse
[ix] “Dr. Bashar Jaafari: Syria is Back as a Major Regional Player – Interview”, Syria News, 31.05.2021, https://syrianews.cc/dr-bashar-jaafari-syria-is-back-as-a-major-regional-player-interview/
[x] “Syrian Arab Republic-Governorates Profile (June 2014)”, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 28.08.2014, p.22
[xi] Mehmet Emin Cengiz and Bedir Mulla Rashid, “Heated Conflict or Consolidation of the Status Quo in Northeast Syria: What is next for the AANES?”, (Istanbul: Al Sharq Strategic Research, 27.08.2021), p.4.
[xii] “Erdoğan: ABD Afganistan’dan çıktığı gibi Irak ve Suriye’den de çıkmalıdır”, KURDISTAN24, 26.09.2021, https://www.kurdistan24.net/tr/story/71250-Erdo%C4%9Fan:-ABD-Afganistan%E2%80%99dan-%C3%A7%C4%B1kt%C4%B1%C4%9F%C4%B1-gibi-Irak-ve-Suriye%E2%80%99den-de-%C3%A7%C4%B1kmal%C4%B1d%C4%B1r
[xiii] “Where is Mazen al-Hamada?”, The Washington Post, 29.03.2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/post-reports/where-is-mazen-alhamada/
[xiv] For statistics, see. Khalid Alterkawi et al., “The Demographic Change in Syria-2021-2011”, (Istanbul: Jusoor for Studies, March 2021), p.4.
[xv] “Qussai | قصي”, “فريق البث المباشر لمؤتمر عودة اللاجئين في #دمشق يهزئ من تواجد الحضور أنهم فقط للتصفيق كما حصل في مؤتمر #سوتشي، وأن الشعب السوري في الداخل إن سنتحت له الفرصة فلن يتأخر عن الهجرة أبداً ..
(هذا بعد نسيان المايك دون إطفاء) ..” Twitter, 12.11.2020, https://twitter.com/Qussai_jukhadar/status/1326978037586546695
[xvi] See. “You’re Going to Your Death-Violations Against Syrian Refugees Returning to Syria”, (London: Amnesty International, 07.09.2021)
[xvii] Scott Lucas, “Syria Daily: ‘10 Million Trustworthy People Better Than 30 Million Vandals’ ”, EA WorldView, 03.08.2018, https://eaworldview.com/2018/08/syria-daily-10-million-trustworthy-people-better-than-30-million-vandals/
[xviii] “Syrian army general warns refugees: ‘Don’t ever return’ ”, SOFREP, 13.09.2017, https://sofrep.com/news/syrian-army-general-warns-refugees-dont-ever-return/
[xix] “Syrian regime losing control over checkpoints while Russia remains on battle’s sideline in Daraa”, Enab Baladi, 30.07.2021, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2021/07/syrian-regime-losing-control-over-checkpoints-while-russia-remains-on-battles-sideline-in-daraa/