Ankara’s rapprochement towards Damascus for the interests of one man

The search for normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus is a paradoxical situation in the current context. This state of affairs shows Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s contempt for his allies and the refugee population in his country. The president is once again playing the sorcerer’s apprentice to consolidate his leadership position on the eve of the presidential elections.

Troubled relations exploited by the Turkish government

Syrian demonstrations during the 2011 rebellion

Until 2011, before the Syrian crisis broke out, relations between Damascus and Ankara were quite good. In 1999, Syria extradited PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to Turkey and free trade agreements were signed in 2004. However, in April 2011, protest movements were growing in Syria and Ankara feared that the crisis would turn into an interethnic conflict in the region. Turkey supported the Syrian rebellion and took sanctions against the Damascus regime. Relations between the two countries remained broken during the summer of 2011.

The economic consequences for Ankara were important but Turkey regarded the costs as acceptable, because it was convinced that the Syrian regime will fall soon. This proved to be a mistake. At the same time, a growing number of Syrian refugees were finding refuge on Turkish territory. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of the five million Syrian refugees, more than three million are in Turkey. This situation makes Turkey the country receiving most refugees in the world. Turkey instruments the refugee issue and makes it a foreign policy tool, especially used with the European Union and its member states.

An improvement for personal gains

Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 

After calling Bashar al-Assad a terrorist, a murderer and a dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now wants to restore dialogue with Damascus. This is not the first time Turkey has sought to normalize relations with Syria. In 2016, a shift was outlined by the Turkish prime minister by stating that Bashar al-Assad was “one of the players” in Syria and could remain so temporarily. This initiative followed the warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow allies of al-Assad. The rapprochement reached a new level on December 28, 2022 after a meeting between the Turkish, Syrian and Russian defense ministers in Moscow.

Russia plays the role of mediator between the two countries and shows that it has the cards in hand. On the eve of the presidential elections in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has an interest in giving his population perspectives to break the deadlock of the refugee crisis in his country. The Turkish population is indeed fed up with this situation, which they believe is the source of their problems. Negotiations on this subject with the Syrian regime would give credit to the current president for his re-election.

Barriers hindering the rapprochement

For the Syrian authorities “the end of the Turkish occupation in Syria and support for terrorism” are conditions for the return of good relations. However, a withdrawal of Turkey in northern Syria is hardly acceptable to Ankara. The fight against Kurdish influence in the region is the number one priority of the Turkish president.

Turkey’s instability in its international relations is nothing new. Influenced by Moscow, a rapprochement of Turkey towards the Syrian regime will show once again its position as an unreliable partner towards its allies within NATO. Turkey’s motivations for embarking on this diplomatic path points back to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal motivations for retaining power on the eve of the presidential elections. Indeed the issue of Syrian refugees and Turkey’s unsuccessful military operations in Syria are major questions that President Erdoğan must answer.

Ankara has been actively supporting the rebels who wanted to overthrow the Syrian power for a decade. A Turkish rapprochement towards the Syrian regime will be experienced as a betrayal by the Syrian opposition and Syrian refugees in Turkey. Both ally and opponent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is playing the balancing act and trying by all means to keep himself at the forefront at the expense of his country’s interests.

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