Almost 12 years following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Turkey, the most important supporter of the Syrian opposition, has been making overtures to normalize relations (or at least start a political opening) with the Assad regime. Ankara is strengthening the rhetoric of normalization with the regime at a time when the Assad regime is largely seen as militarily victorious in the Syrian conflict, various Arab and European countries are normalizing their relations with Damascus, and Turkey is entering an election period. Although Turkey has for many years replaced the goal of regime change in Syria with the desire to eliminate the YPG/SDF statelet lying on Turkish borders, the intensity of Ankara’s signals towards Damascus in the recent period has exceeded expectations.
For the past months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made several statements in an attempt to show his willingness to normalize with the Syrian regime. As a result of Erdoğan’s constant calls for Russia and Syria to establish a trilateral mechanism to facilitate talks at the intelligence, defense and presidential levels, the Syrian regime came to the negotiating table-albeit unwillingly and under Russian pressure.
In a surprise visit in December 2022, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar went to Moscow along with Turkish Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and met with their Syrian counterparts through Russian facilitation. This meeting was the first of its kind after Turkey severed political channels with the Syrian regime in 2011. However, throughout the Syrian conflict, both sides have resumed talks at the intelligence level.
It is now expected for the Syrian and Turkish sides to organize a meeting through which the foreign ministers will meet. From the Turkish side, this meeting is desired to precede a presidential summit between President Erdoğan and Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad.
Having said that, although Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has consistently suggested that a meeting at the foreign minister level will take place in January 2023, this expectation has not been realized thus far. Moreover, the fake news delivered by the Syrian regime media concerning the meeting in Moscow demonstrated that the Syrian regime means to comply with it only for propaganda purposes.
Turkey’s Motivations for the Talks with the Syrian Regime
There are three primary factors for Turkey to have any sort of political opening toward the Syrian regime:
1- Repatriating a part of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to Syria through an agreement with the regime at a time when Turkey is approaching the elections, and refugees are scapegoated by a large segment of Turkish society on different issues (especially on the economic crisis in Turkey)
2- Protecting Turkey’s border from the problems arising from Syria
3- Coordinating with the Syrian regime to eradicate the threat Ankara perceives from the PKK’s Syrian branch PYD/YPG/SDF.
Nevertheless, it is challenging for Turkey to realize any of these goals through direct talks with the regime considering the trajectory of the Syrian crisis and the current situation and capacity of the regime.
First and foremost, the regime does not have the military and economic resources to control the entire country. Syria is going through an intense economic crisis. Thus, the Syrian regime cannot create an ecosystem that can meet the needs of the expected refugees. The primary supporters of the regime, Russia and Iran, also cannot help the regime create such an ecosystem due to the grim realities they are going through. On the one hand, Russia has become bogged down in its invasion of Ukraine and reduced its military engagement in Syria. In the spring, Russia is expected to concentrate on its invasion of Ukraine, meaning that it will not increase its engagement in Syria for now. Instead, Putin is prioritizing the diplomatic channel and is trying to lay the ground for a presidential summit between Erdoğan and Bashar Al Assad. For a long time, Russia has wanted to crown its military triumphs in Syria with a possible political agreement, which may explain Putin’s motivations behind the summit.
On the other hand, Iran is dealing with the repercussions of the protest wave that erupted after the murder of Mahsa Amini. The stalling of the JCPOA talks, the escalation of Western-Iranian relations (in which Iran’s drone support to Russia is a factor), and the fact that Western sanctions on Iran are not expected to be lifted in the near future indicate that Iran’s difficult situation will continue. Due to the repercussions of this reality, it is also difficult for Iran to invest more in Syria.
Beyond these, the Syrian regime does not want the mentioned refugees to return to Syria at all. Regime figures have previously made many statements against the refugees’ return. What is worse is the bitter fate of Syrian returnees. Many returnees have been subjected to human rights violations, as evidenced by international institutions’ reports. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the Syrian regime is very much content with a controllable population.
Nonetheless, not in the short term but in the long run, it may accept repatriating a minimal number of refugees to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Moreover, refugees are a significant source of revenue for Syria through passport renewal in the countries they reside and the remittances coming from them to Syria. Currently, at least 80 percent of the Syrian population lives in poverty. Hence, to prevent the economy from further deteriorating, the regime depends on the inflow of remittances. Otherwise, the regime can be exposed to new waves of protest, as evidenced in the protests against the regime that lasted for weeks in the Druze-dominated Swaida due to the deteriorating living conditions in the province. Considering these points, Damascus is unlikely to budge on the refugee file in the foreseeable future.
Additionally, the Syrian regime is neither capable nor willing to fight the YPG/SDF. It should be noted that the regime was the leading actor that paved the way for the PYD/YPG to seize large territories in the country as the regime troops withdrew from Northern Syria through a security arrangement with the PYD/YPG in July 2012. This security arrangement helped the regime focus on the areas it perceived as existential threats (Damascus and the surrounding areas). At present, the YPG celebrates the regime withdrawal day from Northern Syria under the name of the ‘July 19th Revolution’.
Moreover, the regime elements were called and deployed on the YPG-controlled territory in 2022, when Turkey was increasing its threats of a military incursion into Syria. Through an arrangement with the regime, some YPG-controlled areas today witness the regime’s army presence. This arrangement was an attempt to hinder Turkey’s military incursion.
The Regime Demands in the Talks
From the regime’s point of view, there is no need to rush for normalization with Turkey for the time being. Furthermore, the expectations and demands of both sides are incompatible with each other. Damascus maintains maximalist demands by setting out preconditions, which are as follows:
-Total Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory.
-Turkey’s designating all opposition groups terrorists and cutting its support to them.
-Reaching an agreement concerning the M-4 road that would favor the regime.
Undoubtedly, Turkey cannot meet at least the first two demands at the moment.
In a nutshell, Turkey is unlikely to get what it wants from the Syrian regime through direct talks. On top of this, the regime believes that if the Turkish opposition wins the elections in Turkey and comes to power, it will be much more amenable to accepting the demands put forward by Damascus than President Erdoğan. Thus, the regime is expected to stall or postpone the talks and maximize its demands as much as possible. Thus, in the current conjuncture, a presidential summit between Erdoğan and Assad seems to not be taking place, at least before the elections in Turkey.