Beirut: Over the past two weeks several back-to-back developments have pushed the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement into full-gear, starting with the 28 December meeting of the Syrian and Turkish defence ministers in Moscow.
Foreign Ministers Faisal Mekdad and Mevlut Cavusoglu are likely to meet in the coming days, ahead of a meeting between presidents Bashar Al Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan anytime between now and next June. When it does happen, it would be their first encounter in 12 years, with Erdogan saying on January 5: “Turkey, Russia and Syria have launched a process in Moscow. Our aim is to establish peace and stability in the region.” And it was with the aim of regional peace that Erdogan said he was willing to sit down with Syria’s Al Assad, without specifying a date.
Talk of normalisation between the two countries has been on the table since last summer, when Cavusoglu announced that he had briefly met his Syrian counterpart in Belgrade, despite 11 years of suspension in bilateral relations.
Before the year 2011, Erdogan had been a regular visitor to Damascus and Aleppo, winning minds and hearts with a policy that was marketed back then as “neo-Ottomanism.” It involved reviving Turkey’s political, economic, and social influence in Arab states that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. The word Ottomanism was difficult to sell, due to nine solid decades of indoctrination against the Ottoman legacy, not only in Syria but in Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Erdogan managed to succeed — rather remarkably before 2011 — by investing in tourism, real estate, and entertainment, while lifting visa requirements between Syria and Turkey. Meanwhile, he cultivated a strong personal friendship with Al Assad, which snapped with the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011.
The years 2011-2022
As the Arab Spring unravelled, Erdogan — then prime minister of Turkey — took clear sides with the Syrian opposition, arming and training militias whose original aim was the overthrow of Al Assad. When that failed, they settled for occupying entire cities and towns along the Syrian-Turkish border.
In 2016, Erdogan abandoned his proxies in the East Aleppo, in exchange for a green light from the Russians to overrun the cities of Al Bab, Jarablus, and Azaz. Two years later in mid-2018, he dropped his proxies in the countryside of Damascus in exchange for taking the strategic city of Afrin.
Turkish flags were raised in these areas, along with Turkish schools, medical care, and Turkish currency. Many thought that Erdogan would eventually hold a referendum in these enclaves and annex them to Turkey, just like his predecessor Mustapha Ataturk had done back in the 1930s with the Sanjak of Alexandretta — territory that Turkey coveted after the end of World War I — which was subsequently annexed to Turkey, with French compliance, in 1939.
That did not happen, however, and following the meeting of defence ministers on December 28, the pro-government Damascus daily Al Watan reported: “Turkey’s consent to completely withdraw its troops from the Syrian territories that it occupies in the north of the country.”
Withdrawal had been the crux of Syria’s conditions for normalisation with Ankara. Without withdrawal, or a commitment to withdrawal, bilateral relations could never be re-established.
What Turkey gets in return
Erdogan wants a handful of rewards for normalisation with Damascus, prime among which is security coordination to end Kurdish separatism in the Syrian northeast. Ankara says that Syrian Kurds are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it labels a “terrorist organisation.” The PKK has been engaged in a four-decade guerrilla war with Turkey, dating back to 1984, and Erdogan blames one of its operatives for the mid-November 2022 terrorist attack in Istanbul. All Syrian groups affiliated with the PKK must be disarmed and neutralised, he says — which is music to the ears of Syrian officialdom.
The Syrians have an axe to grind with the Kurds, who have been occupying oil-rich cities and towns since 2014. With US support they have illegally held onto Syrian oilfields, selling Syrian oil to the Syrian government, which has been suffering from a chronic shortage of heating fuel and gasoline.
Eradicating the Kurdish threat bodes well for the Syrians, who refuse to recognise their self-claimed autonomy or any manifestations of statehood. In 2017, President Al Assad described the Kurds as “traitors” and in 2020, he said: “There is no such thing as a Kurdish cause in Syria.”
It remains to be seen how Syria and Turkey will act against the Kurds in the upcoming weeks. Erdogan had wanted to stage a military operation last year, targeting the town of Tel Rifaat north of Aleppo, which he claims the Kurds are using to launch long-range missiles against Afrin.
Will he order his troops to attack the Kurds, or let the Syrian Army do the job on his behalf? And if that happens, will he succeed in neutralising the American troops stationed nearby east of the Euphrates, who have been protecting and arming the Kurds since 2014?
One formula is to return to the Adana Agreement of 1998, which gives Turkey a five-kilometre area into which it can send troops in pursuit of Kurdish separatists. That agreement, suspended in 2012, called for maximal security cooperation between the two countries, allowing the Turks to enter Syria only after informing Syrian authorities. And it clearly stated that they cannot indefinitely stay in that area.
President Putin has been arguing for revival of the Adana Agreement, with Erdogan demanding that the territorial depth be increased from five to 35 kilometres. One suggestion is to deploy Russian troops along the border strip, along with Syrian border guards, in order to give Erdogan an additional layer of security.
Such an agreement would require a meeting between the two presidents, however, which is currently being arranged by Russia.
What do the Syrian gets in return for normalisation?
In return for crushing the Kurds, the Syrians have set forth a series of their own conditions, which in addition to complete withdrawal of Turkish troops, include re-opening and regaining control the Bab Al Hawa border crossing and control of the strategic M4 international highway that connects the western and southwestern regions of northeast Syria.
The M4 runs through northeast Syria from the Iraqi border through the cities of Al Qamishly and AlHassakeh, which are controlled by Kurdish separatists, and Al Bab and Afrin, which are under control of the Turks, running to the west until reaching the port city of Latakia, which remained in the hands of the Syrian government.
Veteran Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi explained: “President Putin is pushing for what we can coin as ‘hostile cooperation’ between Erdogan and Al Assad, similar to the one that exists between him and his Turkish counterpart on a handful of regional and international issues.’ Hamidi, who serves as senior diplomatic editor and at the Saudi daily Alsharq Alawsat told Gulf News: “They don’t have to love each other, but only to cooperate with one another, even if it’s a hostile cooperation, in order to confront a common enemy, being the Kurds.”
But there are a handful of other issues that unite the two countries, says Syrian political analyst Amer Elias. “One is ending the illegal presence of US troops in Syria. Secondly, Turkey remains a Nato state, and if it normalises with Syria happens then that would empower certain EU states who are calling for a new approach towards Syria, clearly that all that was done over the past 12 years has not worked.”
Economics are also vital, says Elias, citing the re-opening of border crossings as vital for bilateral trade between the two countries.