by Giorgio Cafiero
For decades, Turkey and Syria’s bilateral ties have fluctuated vastly. In 1998, the two nations almost went to war over Damascus’ support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), sovereign disputes involving Hatay province, Turkish-Israeli relations, and water issues. After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ascended to power in 2002, a new Turkish foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” heralded a period of cooperation between both capitals that also extended to military cooperation. Yet relations deteriorated in 2011 after the “Arab Spring” quickly spiraled into a bloody civil war in which Ankara backed the Syrian opposition and permitted foreign fighters from all corners of the world to transit Turkey on their way to Syria.
Recently, however, several events suggest that Ankara and Damascus may soon begin a new chapter in their relationship and reconcile differences of the past due to global and regional trends that give both governments interests in a rapprochement.
Last month, Turkish and Syrian senior security officers met for three days on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Officials in Ankara also reduced salaries for the Syrian National Coalition’s members, underscoring how the Syrian rebels are losing their backing from Turkey as their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sponsors are divided and distracted by the months-old Qatar crisis. Since last year Turkey’s role in facilitating Syrian Arab Army (SAA) gains in Aleppo and elsewhere by negotiating ceasefires with Russia has also highlighted Ankara’s shift away from its regime change agenda in Syria.
Key variables driving Turkey’s evolving approach to the Syrian civil war include: an acceptance of the Damascus regime’s upper hand in the conflict; a growing emphasis on countering the growing autonomy of Syrian Kurds in Rojava; the threat that Islamic State (ISIS or IS) poses to Turkey; Ankara’s shift toward Russia’s geopolitical orbit amid growing tensions between Turkey and its traditional Western allies; and recent improvements in Turkish-Iranian relations.
Early on in the Syrian crisis, Turkey sided with revolutionary forces based on the assumption that Bashar al-Assad would meet the same fate as Moammar Gaddafi and other Arab autocrats who lost power during the Arab Spring. Ankara saw the conflict in Syria as an opportunity to expand Turkey’s influence in the Arab world with a Sunni Islamist political order ascending to power. Yet the Turks paid a major price for this foreign policy with the influx of three million refugees into their country, which has heightened sectarian temperatures in Hatay and precipitated IS terrorist attacks across Turkey. Put simply, Turkey’s approach to Syria has adjusted based on Ankara’s calculation that it was not realistic to simultaneously sponsor anti-regime forces, thwart the Kurds from consolidating their gains in Rojava, and defeat IS.
Arguably, Turkey abandoned, albeit unofficially, its regime change policy vis-à-vis Syria in 2015 and 2016 once Russia’s direct military intervention in the civil war shifted the balance of power in Damascus’ favor, the fragile ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK fell apart with resumed violence, and IS began spilling blood north of the Turkish-Syrian border. After last year’s failed coup plot against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with the Trump administration stepping up America’s support for Syrian Kurds, Ankara has turned to Russia and Iran as a way of hedging its bets with Washington, which some in the APK believe was behind the unsuccessful coup. The rapprochement with Russia and Turkey’s increasingly cordial relationship with Iran required Ankara to tone down its support for rebels fighting the Moscow- and Tehran-backed Damascus regime and begin cooperating with the Kremlin in Syria. Turkey and Russia’s first joint military strike against IS targets in al-Bab in January illustrated the extent to which Ankara and Moscow moved away from their previous hostile relationship.
At this juncture, a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement is not inevitable. The key issue that will shape Ankara’s relationship with the Assad regime is the latter’s relationship with the Syrian-based offshoot of the PKK, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It remains to be seen if Damascus will cooperate with Ankara to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish state (or at least an increasingly autonomous Kurdish de facto government) in Rojava or not.
On September 22, the Syrian Kurds, following the example set by the Iraqi Kurds, held an election in Syrian Kurdistan to begin establishing autonomous institutions to strengthen their power in Rojava. Despite some clashes, the SAA and the YPG have mostly left each other alone throughout the Syrian civil war based on their shared interests in defeating Islamist forces fighting both the regime and Syria’s Kurdish minority. Yet Damascus opposes the Syrian Kurds’ plans for greater autonomy and there is reason to expect the SAA and the Western-backed YPG to head toward a more confrontational relationship as both the regime and Syria’s Kurdish fighters are competing to seize control of Deir Ezzor as IS loses its hold of that city.
A real indicator of a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement would be Ankara reopening its embassy in Damascus. The reopening of Turkey’s embassy in the Syrian capital would mark a major victory for Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies by severely dimming any remaining prospects for regime change in Damascus. It’s not clear, however, whether Turkey would so obviously facilitate Russian efforts to expand its clout at the expense of America in the post-Cold War Middle East.