Ankara and Damascus discuss possible normalization after years of rift

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ANKARA: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s revelation that he met his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit last October raised the possibility that Ankara and Damascus are seeking political rapprochement after 11 years of breaking ties.

Cavusoglu is said to have discussed with his counterpart in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the need to come to terms with the opposition and the Assad regime in Syria for a lasting peace.

The Turkish Foreign Minister stressed that his country supports the territorial integrity of Syria because “the integrity of the borders, the territorial integrity and the peace of a neighboring country directly affect us”.

The pro-government newspaper Turkiye recently claimed that Assad and Erdogan could arrange a phone conversation after Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed it during his recent meeting with Erdogan in Sochi. However, Cavusoglu denied rumors of talks between the Syrian and Turkish presidents.

Having carried out four cross-border military operations in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 to clear its border of terrorist groups, Turkey also has a significant military presence through observation posts in the north of the country.

Since 2017, Turkey, Iran and Russia have come together in meetings in Astana to try to bring the warring parties in Syria to find a permanent solution to the war.

It is not a secret that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services communicate.

However, while Turkey has backed rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, the latest signs of a potential normalization of bilateral relations have angered opposition groups who have staged mass protests in several northern regions. of Aleppo to express their objections, fearing a new diplomatic contact with the Assad regime. .

Turkey’s bid for peace with the Assad regime could also affect the fate of more than 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, who have become a domestic political issue due to the economic difficulties facing the country is facing.

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, Turkey and Syria enjoyed close relations at the highest level, often exemplified by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s famous summer vacation with his family in the Turkish Aegean resort of Bodrum, where he also met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip. Erdogan in 2008.

“Given the durability of the Assad regime, Ankara must have some sort of modus vivendi; in fact, it already exists at the level of heads of intelligence agencies,” Rich Outzen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Jamestown Foundation, told Arab News.

“The political risk for President Erdogan of a quick or warm reconciliation is, however, incredibly high, so understanding is likely to be incremental and limited,” Outzen said.

According to Outzen, a botched re-engagement would mean undermining the viability of the Turkish-protected safe zone, leading to new waves of refugees or inviting further massacres by Assad among the populations Ankara wants to protect and stay in place.

“Yet the absence of a modus vivendi is also not sustainable in the long term, because inevitably pressure will increase internationally and in Turkey for Turkish forces to have a path to withdrawal, even if the path is measured. over several years,” he said. .

Because of this, Outzen thinks fears of a hasty or quick reconciliation or re-engagement are overblown.

“Putin, of course, is pressuring Erdogan to re-engage, but in my view Erdogan will resist all but the minimum measures to maintain his own freedom of maneuver in Syria,” he said. “As this week’s protests in the Safe Zone demonstrate, moving too quickly in this process can provoke a backlash among Syrians in northern Syria and perhaps ultimately in Turkey.

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey program at the Washington Institute, while Turkey’s endgame in Syria is an Erdogan-Assad handshake, Ankara and Damascus are dragging northwest Syria into a frozen conflict.

“I don’t believe that an agreement between Turkey and Syria will lead to a complete reset of the borders and border affairs of the two countries, because many Syrians who live in the areas controlled by the Turkish-backed forces have already been effectively cleaned up by Assad, in some cases twice,” he told Arab News.

“There is no way they will stay in Assad regime-controlled Syria if the two leaders shake hands or swap territory,” he said.

Cagaptay believes Turkey will recognize Assad’s sovereignty over the region, but continue to temporarily provide security and law and order in parts of northwestern Syria, while keeping millions of Sunni Arabs . Assad does not want and has no interest in making full citizens again.

“Assad might even return to the border crossings with the Syrian Republic flag and might start providing some of the social services,” he told Arab News.

For Cagaptay, the big favor Turkey is doing Assad is keeping Syrian refugees inside the country and in northwestern Syria under Turkish control, and not forcing them to return to Syria.

“It’s a huge boon for Assad because he used the war in Syria for ethnic engineering. Before the war, Sunni Arabs made up more than two-thirds of Syria’s population, but now they are less than half. In exchange for this favor, Assad can offer to reinstate the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia under his control. It’s a good deal for Erdogan and Turkey,” he said.

Turkey views the YPG as a threat to national security and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

For Aydin Sezer, an analyst based in Ankara, the possibility of re-engagement with the Assad regime will be used for domestic consumption before the approach of the electoral term scheduled for June 2023 at a time when economic troubles are worsening in Turkey.

“There is significant external pressure for this reconciliation to happen, while the economic burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and the rising cost of deploying military officers to observation posts in Syria also make this financially important issue for internal dynamics,” he told Arab News.

Turkey has about 5,000 troops in areas it controls in Syria, as well as some 8,000 troops around the rebel-held province of Idlib, which costs Ankara billions of dollars to maintain and risks clashes. with Assad and foreign powers for violation of territory.

“Although the rapprochement cannot happen overnight, it is significant that the ruling government as well as the opposition parties have started discussing it,” Sezer said.

Erdogan recently hinted at a new operation in Syria to create a 30km-deep safe zone from the border to repel Kurdish militants, but any military activity does not appear imminent after several warnings from regional powers.

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