Beirut: Algeria mediated secret talks between Syria and Turkey ahead of a recent announcement by the Turkish prime minister that appeared to signal a Turkish reassessment of its enmity with the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim sent shockwaves through Syrian opposition circles this week when he said that Ankara wants to re-establish good relations with Syria. Many perceived it as vicious back-stabbing by the Turkish government that has been the key backer of the political and armed opposition to Al Assad’s regime. The statement, they claim, has Russian fingerprints all over it.
The statement was a departure from Turkish policy, which has over the past five years insisted on the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. It seemingly fits in with Ankara’s recent rapprochement with both Moscow and Tel Aviv, with Yildirim saying: “We normalised relations with Russia and Israel. I am sure we will normalise relations with Syria as well.”
A Syrian mediator in Damascus told Gulf News that secret talks were hosted in Algeria in June between Syrian and Turkish officials. The catalyst for these talks, from a Turkish perspective, was preventing the emergence of a Kurdish state in eastern Syria and counter-intelligence efforts to fight the rise of Daesh.
The idea was first floated by Algerian officials to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’alem in March, during a state visit to Algiers. Dogu Perinçek, president of the Turkish Workers’ Party, added that another round of talks were held this summer in Tehran. The Turkish mediator is believed to be Esmail Hakki Pekin, the former chief of military intelligence.
There are conditions on both sides of the negotiating table as how a potential deal between the two countries would look. Ankara wants Damascus to cease its support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and to help round up its military leaders who are accused of triggering a series of deadly attacks inside Turkish cities. It also wants to cooperate with Damascus on combating Daesh, which now controls almost all the towns and cities along the Syrian-Turkish border. For its part, Damascus wants the Turks to close the border to Islamist militants, stop its support for rebels in Aleppo and other cities in the Syrian north, and to suspend its financial and political support to the Syrian National Coalition. Although unsaid in public, Syrian officials want Turkey to keep many of the refugees that it helped host, considering many of them anti-regime or being families of Syrian rebel fighters who are unwelcome back home.
Turkey bankrolled and hosted leaders both of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC), and it opened its borders to accept over 2 million Syrian refugees on one front, and reportedly sent thousands of fighters into the Syrian battlefield. Presidents Bashar Al Assad and Erdogan, former friends turned sworn enemies, have launched vicious verbal attacks against each other, with Al Assad recently calling Erdogan “a butcher.” Last December, Erdogan accused Al Assad of “mercilessly killing 400,000 innocent civilians”.
After the ouster of ex-Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier this summer, indicators started emerging that a new page might be turned between Damascus and Ankara, via Russian mediation. Davutoglu was one of the principle architects of Turkey’s policy toward Syria and was the last official to visit Damascus in 2011, trying hard back then to talk the Syrians into creating a cabinet of national unity, one that includes the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The Turkish Embassy in Damascus never closed down completely despite the slump in relations since 2011. It still operates with a handful of junior staff. State relations can be warmed up, especially with the new Turkish Prime Minister, who has been spared from any character assassination by the Damascus press, unlike Erdogan, whom it says “will never be welcome in Damascus again”. The same kind of hard talk is not said about Binali Yildirim, who had visited Damascus frequently before 2011, in his official capacity as Minister of Transport.
In 2007, Syria established ties with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), at the urging of Ankara, and launched ferryboat trips between the port cities of Latakia and Famagusta, via Yildirim. Since Yildirim assumed office last May, state-run media in Syria has been neutral — and sometimes actually forthcoming — vis-a-vis the new Turkish Premier, hinting that it is willing to do business with him.