ANKARA: The Turkish government is considering the possibilities of establishing a dialogue channel with the Syrian government, the pro-government newspaper Hurriyet reported.
Using unnamed sources, the Turkish daily said: “Turkey’s recent balanced policy and the role that Ankara has played in recent months, especially in resolving the war in Ukraine, have made the current period conducive to resolution of the Syrian crisis”.
According to the report, the bilateral discussions will focus on three key issues: the protection of the unitary structure of the Syrian state against the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the safeguarding of the territorial integrity of Syria and the possibility the safe return of approximately half of the Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
There has been no comment yet on the Hurriyet report from Damascus or Ankara.
Francesco Siccardi, senior program manager at Carnegie Europe, told Arab News that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seizing a political opportunity with a potential move towards rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“After presenting himself as the mediator between Russia and Ukraine, he could present himself as a benevolent leader also in the Syrian scenario. The fact that the two initiatives could not bear fruit is secondary to the perception of these postures which will help to enhance its image both at home and abroad,” he said.
Improving diplomatic relations with Damascus could also help Ankara reduce the political and economic burden of hosting 3.7 million refugees in Turkey amid soaring inflation and declining purchasing power. The economic problems paralyzing the country are often blamed on the presence of an uncontrolled number of refugees.
According to Siccardi, this initiative could produce excellent gains for Erdogan if some of the Syrian refugees currently in Turkey are allowed to return to Syria.
Hurriyet also claimed that Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates last month was seen in Ankara as a demonstration of his willingness to take new initiatives and rally new support as he hopes to stabilize the country.
Meanwhile, normalization of relations between Turkey and Egypt also looms on the horizon, with unconfirmed reports of a possible appointment of a Turkish ambassador to Cairo after nearly nine years.
Experts note that Turkey’s ongoing normalization efforts with Middle Eastern and Gulf countries will inevitably require the resumption of relations with Syria.
Samuel Ramani, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said Turkey sees itself as an increasingly important player in crisis diplomacy.
“Turkey played the role of dialogue facilitator and mediator between Russia and Ukraine, and is now trying to convey this experience to Syria. Assad’s recent visit to the UAE underscores his growing normalization with Arab countries, and despite Turkey’s antipathy towards him, Ankara realizes that Assad is the only leadership option for Syria,” he said. he told Arab News.
According to Ramani, since Turkey tries to ease tensions with regional powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, eliminating Syria as a source of tension serves this agenda.
Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Turkey has carried out multiple military operations in northern Syria in an attempt to retaliate against Syrian Kurdish militants whom it associates with the PKK.
According to the 1998 Adana memorandum between Syria and Turkey, both sides are required to take the necessary steps to expel PKK fighters from the Syrian border.
Ankara has deployed thousands of troops to Syria and set up dozens of military outposts and bases there, which Damascus considers a violation of its sovereignty.
The last meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran within the framework of the Astana process was held in December. It remains to be seen how Turkey’s potential disagreements with Russia over its pro-Ukrainian neutrality policy will affect the dynamic in Syria.
According to Ramani, Turkey tried to compartmentalize its disagreements with Russia over Ukraine into its engagement with Moscow in Syria.
“Patrols between Russia and Turkey have continued in northern Syria, even as Russian tanks wave the Z symbol in support of the war Turkey opposes. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin cited Turkey’s ability to engage with Russia in theaters, such as Syria, while disapproving of its conduct in Ukraine as a model for Western countries to follow,” he said. -he declares.
As Turkey has not signed on to Western sanctions against Russia, Ramani does not expect Moscow to have any objections to dialogue with Ankara in Syria.
“It will also host talks between Turkey and Assad,” he said.
For Siccardi, Turkey has a lot to lose in Syria and a change in the status quo in Idlib could have catastrophic consequences for Ankara.
“More than 3 million civilians have taken refuge there. The offensive of an Assad regime – supported by Moscow – could lead many people to enter Turkey, where nearly 4 million Syrians have already found refuge. This would be extremely damaging for Erdogan, who is working for the safe return of most Syrians currently living in Turkey. To avoid this outcome, Turkey will continue to be very careful and guard its relations with Moscow. »
Last year, Erdogan raised the specter of a renewed Turkish military campaign against Kurdish forces in northern Syria. For the moment, such an offensive is not on the national agenda.
“But, with an eye on the country’s legislative and presidential elections in 2023, any new plan for a military operation in Syria will help Erdogan connect with his nationalist constituencies and garner support,” said Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations. Arab News.
“Last year, Russia did not give Syria the green light for any military offensive plan. But, given the current balances between Russia and the United States over the Ukraine conflict, Russia could push for a military offensive in Syria against Kurdish militants just to drag US forces into further turmoil,” he said. he adds.
According to Sezer, if the rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus bears fruit before the elections, the repatriation of refugees could take place with some political backlash.
“Damascus can ask Ankara to take back the Syrian National Army fighters who mostly have Turkish nationality, and offer help for the repatriation of Syrian refugees,” he said, adding: “If Turkey takes coordinated action with the United Arab Emirates in Syria, it should also align its strategies with Russia.
Ankara has, over the past four years, maintained low-level contact with Damascus through intelligence agencies.
But in 2019, Erdogan claimed he would never speak to Assad, “who is responsible for the deaths of over a million Syrians”.