by Ahmet Mehmet (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 52, No. 12, Rajab, 1444)
Recent statements emanating from Ankara to improve relations with Syria are reflective more of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desperation than what the ground realities would suggest. He has realized the failure of his Syria policy and wants a face-saving exit before the June 2023 elections in Türkiye but Syrian President Bashar al-Asad does not appear keen to offer one. At least not yet.
Let us recall the statements of Turkish officials following the meeting of the defence ministers of Syria and Turkey in Moscow on December 28, 2022. The two countries’ intelligence chiefs had already met earlier, again under Moscow’s auspices.
On January 5, addressing his Justice and Development (AK) Party’s extended provincial heads meeting in Ankara, Erdogan said that following an “upcoming foreign ministers meeting”, the leaders of Russia, Türkiye, and Syria may also meet to discuss peace and stability in Syria.
“Depending on the developments, we may come together as the Russian, Turkish, and Syrian leaders. So, our aim is to establish peace and stability in the region,” Erdogan was quoted by the Turkish media as saying.
Both the timing of his announcement and the audience he was addressing are important. He made the announcement about meeting his Syrian counterpart exactly a week after the two countries’ defence ministers had met in Moscow. And he made these comments to the ruling AKP’s provincial heads.
There is much unease in Türkiye, including among AKP stalwarts, about Erdogan’s Syria policy. When the foreign-instigated war was first launched against Syria in early 2011, there was initially great enthusiasm for Türkiye’s involvement. People were hyped up by a jingoistic policy of Turkish expansionism and revival of the glory of the Ottoman Empire.
Taking a leaf from Hollywood, this was augmented by such drama serials as Ertugral and Kurlus Osman, playing up Turkish nationalism. Without taking anything away from the drama serials—they are fantastic and have great entertainment value—past glory is a poor substitute for current realities.
Turkish troops invaded and occupied large swathes of Syrian territory in the north. There was even talk of permanent occupation. Erdogan used the threat of Kurdish separatists, especially the PKK—a terrorist outfit—to justify his militaristic policy. Some four million Syrian refugees flooded into Türkiye. Initially, they were welcomed since there was widespread belief that like a number of other rulers in the region—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya etc—Asad’s government would also collapse in an orgy of killings and blood-letting. The refugees will return home, grateful for Türkiye, especially Erdogan’s help. He would be proclaimed a hero of the Muslims.
As the war dragged despite the direct US involvement (American troops illegally occupy parts of Syria and are involved in the theft of Syrian oil and grain), and its regional surrogates’, the Turkish economy started to feel the ill-effects of war. The Turkish lira has collapsed and inflation has skyrocketed. With jobs disappearing, the Turkish people started to blame Syrian refugees for their economic woes. This is the most common fallback position of people under economic stress. Turkish opposition parties also played up this ‘problem’.
Erdogan is worried that in the June 18, 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, he may not fare too well. Polls show the opposition parties are gaining ground. Whether they will be able to dislodge Erdogan from power is unclear but the self-styled Turkish sultan is taking no chances, hence his desperation to wriggle out of the Syrian imbroglio.
The optimistic statements issued from Ankara are meant to both send a signal to Damascus that Türkiye is ready for a deal, and to create the perception at home that Erdogan is actively pursuing a policy of resolving differences with Syria. The Saudi-owned newspaper, English Al-Arabiya even speculated that the foreign ministers of Türkiye and Syria will meet in Moscow in mid-January. This was contradicted by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who said the date had not been finalized and the meeting could take place perhaps in mid-February.
Even the February date was rubbished by Syria. President Bashar al Asad said that Damascus had not given its approval for a meeting between their respective foreign ministers. He insisted that talks would continue only after Türkiye has withdrawn all its forces from Syrian territory. Asad said Erdogan’s offer of talks was a “ploy for his re-election bid”.
Having cleansed most of Syria’s territory from the clutches of foreign-backed terrorists, thanks to the help provided by Hizbullah, Islamic Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as well as Russian air support that began in September 2015, Asad feels he is in a strong position.
Among the original conspirators—the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Qatar—to bring down Asad’s government, a number of them have made up with Syria. The UAE and Bahrain re-opened their embassies in Damascus in 2018. So have Algeria, Jordan and Oman. The latter did not cut off relations with Syria despite the war. The Saudis and the Egyptians, too, have signalled that they are interested in patching up.
With Arabian rulers falling over themselves to gate crash into Damascus, Türkiye remains the odd man out. The Syrian president, however, feels Erdogan betrayed not only Syria but him personally. Apart from state level relations, the two families had become close friends. Personal betrayals often create much more lasting hurt that even time may not be able to heal quickly.
There is, of course, the Russian factor as well. Can Asad afford to antagonize the Russians who have invested so much in Syria? True, Russia needs Syria as well but Asad may ultimately have to give in to Moscow’s pressure, even if couched in diplomatic language, to make up with Erdogan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally urged reconciliation with Ankara.
Only time will tell how soon this might materialize but the regime change project in Syria has clearly failed. This also signals the end of US hegemony in the region. In the several meetings held to resolve the Syrian crisis, America has been deliberately kept out of such discussions.