What makes Syrian opposition reassured of Turkish steps towards Damascus?
Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa
Turkish statements and moves towards the Syrian regime and the possibility of opening channels of dialogue to restore ties with it have increased over the past few months amid a stalemate in Syrian political opposition movements in its various institutions, such as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SOC) or the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). This raised questions about the opposition’s position on Turkish politics and its ability to take an effective position.
In the past days, the Iranian Tasnim and the Russian Sputnik news agencies have published in close periods of time leaks that they did not reveal their sources, stating that Turkey has asked the Turkish-based Syrian opposition to leave its territory or remain on the condition that no political action is carried out, which has been denied by opposition institutions more than once.
On 15 September, Reuters reported that the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency, Hakan Fidan, met with the director of the Syrian regime’s National Security Office, Ali Mamlouk, recently this week in the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to a “regional source loyal to Damascus.”
According to the agency’s citation of four unnamed sources, Fidan has held several meetings with Mamlouk over the past few weeks, which it regarded as an indication of Russian efforts to encourage “breaking the ice” between countries on opposite sides of the Syrian file.
The meeting assessed how the two countries foreign ministers might eventually meet, according to whom Reuters presented as a senior Turkish official, in addition to a Turkish security source as well.
The Turkish official added that one of the major challenges was Turkey’s desire to involve the opposition in any talks with Damascus.
“Perhaps a step towards a solution”
Regarding the opposition’s position on the Turkish moves, the member of the SOC’s General Assembly, Ayman al-Asmi, told Enab Baladi that each country has its own foreign policy, adding that the opposition cannot control or impose its opinion upon any country’s policy, whether it was an ally or otherwise.
However, the opposition’s position on any state meeting with al-Assad is “clear,” al-Asmi said. “Al-Assad should only be in The Hague to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for what he has done to Syria and its people”.
“Turkey seeks to put the file directly on the table without relying on certain forces that have been treating it as a crisis management rather than as a people’s issue that needs to be resolved. Perhaps this could be a step towards operationalizing a solution.
As for the question “how?”, the coming days will bring answers to it.”
Member of the General Assembly of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC)
In response to news of Turkey’s request to the Syrian opposition to leave its territory, al-Asmi asserted that the latter’s relationship with Turkey would not change whatever news. He noted that the opposition’s demands were clear and would not be waived. These demands are summarized in the implementation of relevant UN international resolutions, in particular Resolution N. 2254, and holding al-Assad accountable.
The “new” opposition is aligned with Turkey
In conjunction with increased Turkish statements about the relationship or dialogue with the Syrian regime, criticism of the Syrian opposition, which is accused of ignoring the seriousness of the Turks in their meeting with al-Assad, is also increasing.
Speaking to Enab Baladi, the former head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), Dr. Khaled Khoja said that the opposition had undergone radical change and dilution over ten years since the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and its expansion, and then the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its expansion more than once. Thus, the structure of the opposition itself has changed, and therefore, its positions have shifted as well.
Khoja explained that there was a kind of multiplication of the opposition in line with the path that Turkey accepted in agreement with Iran and Russia after adopting the Sochi process in 2016. So, the positions of the opposition, whether political or military, that accepted to remain in this situation became parallel to the Turkish positions since that time.
According to these data, and in the absence of an opposition mentor or compass that could inform the opposition’s attitudes and statements, it is natural for the opposition’s positions and statements to be commensurate with its structure. He considered that we should not expect a clear position from the opposition in the case regarding the Turkish turning towards Damascus.
Opposition must engage in order to “fail the initiative”
For his part, Nader al-Khalil, a fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, considered in an interview with Enab Baladi that what the Syrian opposition is experiencing today does not contradict the objective that was set for it, namely, “the presence of an opposition body participating in meaningless talks and negotiations devoid of any active or influential revolutionary action. In fact, it identifies with the party that created it and financially supports it, thereby losing the most important prerequisite of the independent decision”.
Al-Khalil stated that Turkey is currently examining the prospects of reaching an understanding with the regime, considering that it may not be able to reach decisive understandings with it because of the existence of Turkish-related files in which the regime will not compromise, most notably the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria file and issues of the “return of refugees” and striking a political settlement.
For these facts, the researcher considered that the opposition should not leave the scene because its presence as a party to negotiate effectively would make the regime fail, and therefore Bashar al-Assad would appear to be the one who caused the failure of the “Russian-Turkish initiative.”
Apart from populist views and discourses, and based on realism and objectivity, researcher Nader al-Khalil agrees with the view that the opposition should interact with the issue of Turkey’s negotiation with the Syrian regime and show flexibility according to two equations:
The first: it is the only political representative of the opposing street approved by external powers, and therefore it must not exceed the minimum that this street can accept and must not lose its source of legitimacy and influence. This equation is being brandished in front of the Turks in conjunction with the second equation.
The second equation is its willingness to be a negotiating party, which will allow it to influence its process, in the sense of taking advantage of the predicament in which it found itself and turning it into positive gains. Turkey seeks a political cover associated with the opposition that the SOC would embody, and therefore Turkey needs it: the SOC must exploit this need while awaiting the results of what would happen in later stages.
When the SOC imposes itself as an active negotiating party, the negotiations will fail because the regime will not accept any active opposition party as a partner.
Fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies,
The regime demands and does not cooperate
The former head of the SOC, Dr. Khaled Khoja, does not believe that the leaks about Turkey’s request to the Syrian opposition to leave its territory are “correct.” According to him, it is too early for Turkey to ask the opposition to leave Turkey.
He considered that we cannot expect such a position from Turkey in light of the lack of clarity on the issue of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime; so far, the Syrian regime demands that Turkey withdraw its troops from northern Syria without showing a willingness to receive refugees, noting that Turkey’s main objective with the dialogue is the repatriation of refugees.
Khoja added that al-Assad has no interest in the issue of cooperation regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Therefore, it is true that Turkey is reaching out to the regime, but there is no desire from the latter to evaluate this potential rapprochement so far.
Claims and counter-claims
On 17 September, the Turkish newspaper Sabah quoted the details and demands of both Turkey and the Syrian regime regarding the intelligence meeting that brought together the head of the Turkish intelligence agency, Hakan Fidan, with the director of the National Security Office of the regime, Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus.
According to the newspaper’s report, a high-level diplomatic meeting between Turkey and the regime at a presidential or ministerial level is unlikely, and intelligence meetings will continue in order to form common ground between the two sides.
Turkey’s demands were to ensure the safe return of refugees and the return of property, as well as presenting guarantees of non-prosecution, stated the report.
On the other hand, the regime’s demands center on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory. The Turkish response stated that “this subject can be evaluated later, provided that the constitutional process is completed, free elections are held, and the Adana Agreement on Counter-Terrorism is renewed”.
“Driving a wedge” between the opposition and its supporters
Fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nader al-Khalil, considered that what was happening on the subject of leaks about Turkey’s request to the Syrian opposition to leave its territory was aimed at increasing pressure on the opposition and pushing the Syrian opposing street into sharp positions towards Turkey, by suggesting that Turkey was abandoning it. This would increase the street’s pressure on political opposition to resist Turkish proposals, in the sense that the objective is to “drive a wedge” between the opposition, the Syrian opposing public, and Turkey.
In an opinion article published on Asharq al-Awsat news website on 17 September, the former Turkish ambassador to Syria, Ömer Önhon, considered the path to the agreement between Turkey and the Syrian regime “very bumpy, with many potential deadlocks.”
Önhon explained that a meeting at a ministerial level or one that would bring senior Turkish and Syrian regime officials is not impossible because there are several issues that can be addressed, most notably the Syrian opposition, the future of the Kurds in Syria, refugees, “armed groups,” and Idlib governorate.
These are merely general headings; when one is to examine subheadings, matters become more complicated, Önhon added.
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