Turkey: Three expected scenarios for Syrian file in post-election period
Enab Baladi – Masoud Tatuz
Defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran met in Moscow on April 25 to take part in a Kremlin-led effort to restore diplomatic ties between Ankara and Damascus after years of strained relations that verged on military confrontation.
The outcome of the quadripartite talks held in the Russian capital remained uncertain despite the joint intention to continue the consultations, and it became clear that Turkey and the regime still face many barriers that need to be overcome before a mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime considers the Turkish withdrawal from northern Syria and ending Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition as key conditions in any potential deal.
Russia has long sought to normalize relations between Syria and Turkey, both of which are strategic partners of Moscow, according to Chiara Lovotti, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
If the two countries restore relations, Lovotti explained in a paper she published on April 6, it would serve the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is working to bring a political end to what has become an international conflict.
Moreover, successful mediation would grant Russian President Vladimir Putin diplomatic standing and recognition from countries in the region, which could benefit from de-escalation of regional tensions, according to the researcher.
The Syrian-Turkish rapprochement is generally desired by Russia for logistical reasons, as large quantities of supplies are sent to the Russian forces present in Syria from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Strait, Lovotti says.
But as for the extent of Russia’s commitment to mediating this rapprochement, it will have to overcome a number of obstacles, including Turkey’s presence in northwestern Syria, which is a precondition for regime’s president Bashar al-Assad to continue the dialogue towards normalization.
The Turkish journalist, Fehim Taştekin, suggested that the Russian endeavor to normalize relations between the regime and Ankara is to present an “election gift” to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the upcoming Turkish presidential elections, which al-Assad does not want.
On December 22, 2022, Turkish media websites reported that the Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party had sent a “secret message” in which it offered concessions to Bashar al-Assad if it won the Turkish elections scheduled for May 14.
The Turkish haber7 website, quoting the pro-regime Syrian-Armenian journalist Sarkis Kasarjian, said that the Turkish party’s message “included concessions and compensation to the regime if it won the elections.”
For his part, the head of the Center for New Turkey Studies, Yuri Mavashev, said in an interview with the Turkish BBC that for the Russian authorities, Erdogan’s survival means the ability to predict Turkish moves and maintain the status quo, but if Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wins or any Another opposition candidate, that would be a “huge inconvenience for the Kremlin.”
Mavashev continued, “It is clear that Putin does not want to deal with a president other than Erdogan,” and believes that the most important reason for this is that “Erdogan and Putin speak the same language.”
Normalizing relations with Syria can help Erdogan in the elections, according to Mavashev. “The elections are the reason that prompted the Russian authorities to normalize Turkish-Syrian relations. It is like an election gift for Erdogan.”
Three scenarios in northwestern Syria
The Turkish elections are expected to be a decisive turning point in the country’s history and could have a significant impact on the future of Syria, especially northwestern Syria, where Turkey has great influence.
The Turkish president tried to regain control over the Syrian file by entering into talks with al-Assad.
However, during al-Assad’s most recent trip to Russia last March, he made several demands for normalizing relations with Ankara, including the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northwestern Syria.
While the current Turkish government was communicating with Damascus, the Syrian regime was slowing down the talks and contradicting Ankara to present itself as the stronger party in the negotiations.
Damascus does not want to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “election gift,” according to Fares Halabi, a researcher on Syrian affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming Turkish elections, there are several possible scenarios for Turkey’s approach to the situation in northwestern Syria, according to Halabi.
The first scenario involves maintaining the stable status quo in the region. It is unlikely that the new government will introduce any major changes.
The second scenario is represented by witnessing a partial withdrawal, especially with regard to governance, as Turkey may encourage the formation of a single governing body for northwestern Syria.
As for the third possible scenario, it involves a complete shift in policy. Turkey is expected to continue its efforts to improve relations with the Syrian regime, regardless of the government’s political orientation.
This will end the decade-long conflict, which has major repercussions on security, governance, economy, and armed groups in northwestern Syria, according to Halabi.
What does the Turkish opposition want?
The Nation Alliance, the largest of the Turkish opposition alliances, announced its electoral program, which included improving Turkey’s relations with the European Union, expanding Turkey’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and returning Turkey to the “Western camp.”
In return, the Turkish opposition promised to return the Syrian refugees in Turkey within two years, in addition to normalizing relations with the Syrian regime and reopening the Turkish embassy in Damascus, which the United States and the European Union oppose.
Researcher Fares Halabi explained that if the opposition wins the presidency, it will have to deal with the reality of the Turkish role in northwestern Syria and the possibility of renewed conflict and waves of refugees, which will likely push it to refrain from implementing its electoral promises.
The opposition plans to partially withdraw from Syria and achieve stability in the region while securing the border areas and implementing one of its most important electoral promises, which is the return of refugees, according to Halabi.
The new Turkish administration will maintain a relationship with the factions supported by Ankara in northwestern Syria and aims to increase the influence of less extremist groups, according to Halabi.
At the same time, it will maintain a relationship with the Syrian regime, and its forces will act like peacekeepers, which may invite Arab or other regional powers to join the Turkish forces in northwestern Syria.
Halabi added that the United States would intervene indirectly to gather efforts among the actors in northeastern and northwestern Syria to protect the region from additional attacks by al-Assad and Russia.
Regarding the withdrawal from Syria, Halabi said, “The Turkish opposition does not want to stay, but it does want security guarantees and a mechanism for the return of refugees before leaving, conditions that the Assad regime would likely agree to. However, as Lebanon and Jordan witnessed, the Assad regime is not very trustworthy in this regard.
According to Halabi’s analysis, the Turkish opposition’s willingness to reconcile with the regime is likely to facilitate normalization. However, the opposition’s thinking is just “wishful thinking” that may not translate into action on the ground.
It is possible that the two parties will reach an agreement on paper, but how it is implemented on the ground can reveal a contradiction between words and deeds.
Mending of Adana Agreement
In an interview with the Middle East Eye website, an official in the Turkish opposition said that Turkey’s policy towards Syria, in the event that the opposition coalition wins, will depend to a large extent on dialogue with the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad.
He added, “Turkey took a side in the Syrian war, and that will be corrected. We will not withdraw immediately from Syria. I cannot give a timetable, but we will discuss our circumstances and see what happens.”
The official explained that the current Turkish administrative work and aid in northern Syria will continue, but the military presence will depend on a final agreement that guarantees border security against terrorist threats.
The agreement will be based, according to the official, on the Adana Agreement of 1998, in which Syria pledged that it would not harbor terrorist groups and would allow Ankara to intervene militarily five kilometers from the border to protect itself.
The official added that it would take a long time to win Damascus’ trust and dismantle the situation in the north, especially in Idlib governorate, where armed groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) are located.
Regarding the deportation of Syrian refugees, the official said that the return of 3.7 million Syrian refugees from Turkey is an important project that requires a huge amount of effort and perhaps a time frame longer than two years. Certainly burden-sharing with the EU, the US, and the UN.
The Turkish opposition cannot reach a solution or fulfill its electoral promises unless the Syrian regime accepts a political transition process in line with United Nations Resolution 2254.
However, good signals and kind words will not motivate the Assad regime to make concessions that it has refused to make over the past decade, according to Ömer Özkizilcik, a researcher on Turkish foreign policy.
Özkizilcik added that as long as this decision is not implemented, Western sanctions will remain the same, further limiting the possibility of normalization between Ankara and Damascus.
In short, if the Turkish opposition is elected, it will make promises it cannot keep and sign deals that will not be implemented, creating a chasm between diplomatic and military measures. By doing so, the opposition will only “weaken Turkey’s position in Syria,” according to Özkizilcik.
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