Motives Behind the Turkish President’s Readiness to Normalize Relations with Damascus

On June 28, 2024, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan affirmed his readiness to work with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on normalizing relations between the two countries. This statement followed Assad’s remarks expressing openness to any initiatives for normalization between Damascus and Ankara, indicating a mutual desire to resume the normalization negotiations that began two years ago under Russian auspices but stalled due to fundamental disagreements. Damascus conditions normalization on ending the Turkish military presence in northern Syria, which Ankara refuses, justifying it by combating terrorist organizations, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The primary motivation for both countries to resume negotiations, aside from Russian pressure, is their shared concern over the establishment of an independent Kurdish entity in northern Syria with US support, following the announcement of municipal elections in seven areas under SDF control in northeastern Syria. Such an outcome would pose a threat to the national security of both Syria and Turkey. Therefore, the normalization negotiations between Ankara and Damascus are expected to be complex in both scope and substance, influenced by current regional geopolitical changes, and their outcomes will impact security arrangements and power balances within Syria and the broader Middle East.

Multiple Dimensions

On June 26, 2024, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with the Russian President’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, reaffirming his openness to all initiatives related to Syria-Turkey relations based on Syrian sovereignty over its entire territory and the fight against all forms of terrorism and its organizations. This was welcomed by his Turkish counterpart. The reactions to Assad’s stance included:

Turkey’s Openness to Normalization with Damascus: Following Assad’s remarks, Erdoğan on June 28, 2024, expressed his readiness to meet with Assad, stating, “I have met with Assad before, and we can meet again. There is no reason preventing us from resuming diplomatic relations with Syria, and we have no intention or goal of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs.” This wasn’t the first time Erdoğan had shown openness to normalization between Ankara and Damascus, having stated earlier in 2024 that “Turkey is ready for dialogue and enhancing relations with anyone who respects its interests.” A trilateral meeting (Russian, Turkish, Syrian) in 2023 had also discussed normalization.

Support from Turkish Political Parties for Normalization with Syria: On June 27, 2024, Özgür Özel, leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), welcomed the normalization between Ankara and Damascus, planning to meet with Assad to initiate solutions for the Syrian issue and open communication channels between Ankara and Damascus. The motive was to repatriate Syrian refugees in Turkey safely. Özel also expressed willingness to mediate a meeting between Assad and Erdoğan. In May 2024, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an ally of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), called for military cooperation between Ankara and Damascus to eliminate the threat of PKK elements in Syria. This bipartisan support strengthens Erdoğan’s position for rapprochement with Damascus, a rare occurrence in Turkey’s political landscape.

Renewed Russian Mediation: Moscow reiterated its support for all initiatives aiming at normalization between Syria and Turkey, showing readiness to facilitate negotiations. The Syrian conflict was a topic of discussion between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their upcoming meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kazakhstan on July 3, 2024. Russian mediation had previously succeeded in facilitating several meetings between Ankara and Damascus, starting with a May 2022 meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Syria in Moscow, followed by a quadrilateral meeting (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria) in June 2023 in Astana, and security talks in June 2024 between Turkish and Syrian delegations at the Russian military base in Hmeimim, Latakia.

Iraqi Mediation Proposal: Iraqi Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani announced Iraq’s mediation between Ankara and Damascus to normalize relations. Turkish sources revealed an upcoming meeting between Turkish and Syrian delegations in Baghdad to resume security and political negotiations. Cooperation among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is crucial in the “Kurdish triangle” region, as they jointly combat the PKK, posing a terrorist threat and security challenge.

Turkish Motives

Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone significant shifts in recent years towards “regional reconciliations,” with its rapprochement with Syria fitting into this framework for several reasons:

Repatriation of Syrian Refugees: The Syrian refugee issue is significant in Turkish society due to the economic burden and demographic changes it causes. Both ruling and opposition parties agree on the need for repatriation but differ on methods. About 650,000 Syrians have voluntarily returned from Turkey, while 3,114,099 Syrians are still under temporary protection, and 2 million hold residence permits in Turkey. Opposition parties accuse the government of being lenient in their repatriation for electoral gains. Forty-one NGOs in Gaziantep, home to nearly half a million Syrians, have warned of social, economic, health, and educational repercussions if Syrians remain in the city.

Mitigating Social Violence in Turkey: The past years have seen increased social violence in Turkey, much of it directed at Syrian refugees. This was evident in the attacks on Syrian homes, businesses, and properties in Kayseri on June 30, 2024. Thus, Turkey’s outreach to the Syrian regime can be seen as a means to facilitate the repatriation of Syrians and reduce the triggers for violence against them.

Preventing the Establishment of a Kurdish Separatist Entity: Ankara views the announcement by the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” to hold municipal elections in seven areas under its control in August 2024 as a threat to its national security. Turkish Defense Minister Yaşar Güler reiterated Turkey’s commitment to creating a buffer zone along its border with Syria and Iraq to counter the Kurdish threat. Damascus shares this concern, fearing the establishment of a Kurdish separatist entity in northern Syria with US backing, impacting Kurdish populations in Turkey, who make up 15% of its 80 million people. Therefore, cooperation between Ankara and Damascus is crucial for confronting Kurdish organizations and maintaining national security, especially amid opposition from Russia, the US, and Syria to any new Turkish military operations in Syria.

Securing the Turkish-Syrian Border: The southern Turkish border faces “fluidity and instability,” making it conducive for drug and human trafficking gangs and terrorist organizations. Turkey controls only 63% of this border, posing a national security threat. Ankara aims to secure this border through cooperation with Damascus and Moscow, recently dismissing several Turkish officers involved in these crimes.

Boosting Erdoğan’s Popularity: President Erdoğan’s popularity has fluctuated, especially after his party lost the municipal elections in March 2024. Normalization with Damascus could lead to the repatriation of Syrian refugees and the resumption of substantial Turkish exports to Syria, positively impacting the Turkish economy and Erdoğan’s popularity, easing internal societal tensions, and providing a favorable environment for the constitutional amendments he plans to propose, which the opposition opposes.

Enhancing Turkish-Russian Relations: The past year saw a cooling in Turkish-Russian relations due to Ankara’s approval of Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership, its closer ties with Ukraine, and increased competition in regions like Central Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and West Africa. Disagreements over security arrangements in Syria also contributed to the tension. Ankara’s agreement to normalize relations with Damascus through Russian mediation would alleviate this tension, strengthening the robust Turkish-Russian ties developed over the past decade, particularly concerning Syrian security arrangements. This would enhance Russian and Turkish influence in Syria and the broader Middle East.

Future Challenges

Despite the mutual openness to normalization between Turkey and Syria and Russian support, several challenges remain:

Syria’s Condition for Normalization: Since talks of normalization began in 2021, Damascus has insisted on Turkey’s complete withdrawal from its territory. Turkey controls a third of northern Syrian cities, including Afrin, Ras al-Ayn, and Tell Abyad, through military operations over the past decade. Damascus reiterated in June 2024 its demand for Turkish withdrawal before starting negotiations, which Ankara rejected, tying it to “fully securing Turkey’s southern border.” Defense Minister Güler stated, “Problems arose in the region due to a power vacuum after 2011 along the border.” Erdoğan had indicated this last year, saying, “Assad wants Turkey to leave northern Syria, and this will not happen,” proposing a “Turkish safe zone” 30 km deep inside northern Syria to relocate refugees and armed elements, which Damascus rejected. Sticking to these positions will hinder negotiations, necessitating numerous security, intelligence, and military meetings between Ankara and Damascus to resolve this issue, given the extensive Turkish military presence in the area through checkpoints, bases, and troops.

The Idlib Dilemma: Idlib in northwestern Syria is a “hotbed” for terrorist organizations, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) and the Syrian Liberation Front, along with various armed groups opposing the Syrian state. Idlib, outside government control, is home to about 60,000 armed elements, mostly receiving Turkish support under the 2018 de-escalation agreement between Ankara and Moscow. Damascus is determined to retake Idlib after cutting Turkish support for armed groups, aiming to expel foreign militants. This requires security arrangements with Ankara and Moscow and direct military confrontations with these groups, potentially leading to retaliatory terrorist attacks in Turkey and Syria.

Turkey’s Vision for Syrian Political Settlement: Turkey supports the Syrian political settlement according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for forming a transitional government, a new constitution, and holding free and fair elections under UN supervision. Ankara has maintained that normalization with Damascus is contingent on this resolution, which it sees as a guarantee for the Syrian opposition, receiving Turkish support. This may not align with Damascus’s vision for a political settlement, potentially stalling normalization negotiations.

Impact of the US “Caesar Act” on Syria: The US enacted the “Caesar Act” in 2020 to pressure the Syrian regime economically and politically, including sanctions on all Syrian institutions, banks, companies, and their dealings with entities in Turkey and other countries. Turkish experts suggest that the US might include Turkish entities in the sanctions list, given Ankara’s stance on normalizing with Damascus. This requires enhanced cooperation between Ankara and Damascus to mitigate the economic effects of these sanctions, as in the meeting between Syria’s Economy Minister and the Turkish commercial delegation in May 2024, to boost Turkish exports to Syria and increase Turkish investments, crucial for the Turkish economy.

In conclusion, despite the positive steps towards resuming normalization negotiations, there are numerous challenges related to the Syrian issue and Turkish policy, necessitating long-term efforts, intensive discussions, and negotiations between the two countries, under Russian mediation, to achieve a satisfactory settlement for both sides.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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