American apathy revives rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara

US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid - June 29, 2022 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid - June 29, 2022 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Hani Karazi 

The Turkish government is rapidly moving towards rapprochement with the Syrian regime, while the United States insists on rejecting normalization with the al-Assad regime without reaching a political solution. This has raised questions about the possibilities of Washington moving to obstruct the rapprochement path between Damascus and Ankara, and what the US will offer Turkey to stop this course.

In recent days, there has been a significant uptick in Turkish statements regarding rapprochement with the regime after a previous decline in Turkish rhetoric, which had led Russia, its sponsor, to declare its failure.

On June 28, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said efforts would be made to develop relations with Syria in the same manner “as we did in the past,” adding, “Just as we maintained our relations with Syria very actively, we held these meetings with Mr. Assad in the past, including family meetings.”

Erdoğan continued, saying, “It is absolutely impossible to say that it won’t happen tomorrow, rather it will happen again,” emphasizing at the same time that there is no interest or goal in intervening in Syria’s internal affairs, as reported by Turkish state media, including TRT HABER.

Erdoğan’s statements about rapprochement with al-Assad took a significant turn when he announced he might extend an invitation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to visit Turkey, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, considering that “this may be the beginning of a new process,” according to the Turkish Anadolu Agency.

American apathy

Erdoğan spoke of opposition to normalization with Damascus by organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Democratic Union Party (PYD), People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Islamic State (IS). But what about the US stance on the rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus? Will it face opposition from Washington?

The US State Department commented on Erdoğan’s statements, confirming that Washington had notified its ally Ankara of its stance on holding talks with the Syrian regime, emphasizing the “need to take steps to improve human rights and security for all Syrians.”

Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson of the department, reiterated on July 2 that the US position is clear: it will not normalize relations with al-Assad in the absence of real progress towards a political solution to the “underlying conflict.”

Enab Baladi reached out to the US State Department for a clear stance on the normalization between al-Assad and Ankara but received no response by the time of writing this report.

The Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdallah, ruled out any US action to curb the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Turkey. This, he believed, is due to a sense of American apathy in dealing with the normalization tracks with al-Assad, evidenced by Washington’s verbal objections only to Arab normalization with al-Assad, merely imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and stating its disapproval of this normalization.

Al-Abdallah added to Enab Baladi: “Even internally, US President Joe Biden was not enthusiastic about the anti-normalization bill with al-Assad, as he pressed Congress to remove this law from the Department of Defense budget.”

As for the American Coalition for Syria, an umbrella of ten US organizations specializing in Syrian affairs, they introduced the anti-normalization with al-Assad bill to the House Foreign Relations Committee, which passed with an overwhelming majority, but President Biden blocked it in late April.

Furthermore, Turkish foreign policy and security expert Ömer Özkizilcik asserted that the United States’ cold policy towards Syria has encouraged Turkey to seek normalization with al-Assad. He said that Ankara had expectations that after defeating the Islamic State, or during discussions of a US withdrawal from Syria, Washington would change its policy and withdraw support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but it did not do so.

Özkizilcik told Enab Baladi that the US did not provide any incentives, roadmap, political option, or joint cooperation with Turkey to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their country or stop its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Therefore, Ankara moved towards cooperation with Russia, who suggests that normalization with al-Assad would pave the way for the return of refugees, despite Jordanian and Lebanese experiences proving otherwise, showing that normalization with al-Assad did not assist in the return of refugees.

Since 2014, Washington has relied on the People’s Protection Units, the main component of the SDF, to combat the Islamic State. However, Ankara opposed this partnership from the start, as the SDF is a branch of the PKK classified as a “terrorist” organization, affecting US-Turkish relations.

Despite Turkey’s repeated demands to the US to stop supporting the SDF, the US continued to support the Kurdish units, prompting Ankara towards normalization with al-Assad. Turkey declared one of its reasons for moving in this direction is to cooperate with Damascus to eliminate terrorism within Syria, referring to the SDF.

The US is harmed

International relations researcher Mahmoud Alloush believes that the US is harmed by the Turkish-Syrian normalization project because it would be at the expense of its ally, the People’s Protection Units. This would mean further Turkish alignment with the regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, increasing pressure on the American military presence in Syria.

Alloush added to Enab Baladi that the harm the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria might cause to American interests will make Washington seek to thwart this normalization, but it is clear that the US does not possess sufficient leverage over Turkey to deter it from this path unless it accepts the need to offer Turkey some incentives concerning the Kurdish units to persuade it to abandon the normalization with al-Assad.

Alloush pointed out that the SDF is no longer a strong pressure tool in the hands of the United States over Turkey because Turkey does not need normalization with al-Assad just for the Kurdish units issue. There is a Turkish conviction that the conflict in Syria has become a substantial burden on Turkey, especially regarding the refugee issue.

He continued, “There is also a Turkish conviction that Washington is no longer capable of maintaining its military presence in Syria for long. There are upcoming US presidential elections in three months, and a potential return of Donald Trump might accelerate the US withdrawal from Syria. Thus, all these considerations push Turkey towards normalization with al-Assad and deeper engagement alongside Russia and Iran to end the conflict in Syria.”

While the US finds itself without strong leverage over Turkey to deter it from normalizing with al-Assad, Ankara considers that its strong influence in NATO grants it strong leverage over the United States to prevent the latter from intervening in the normalization between Damascus and Ankara.

Commenting on this, Mahmoud Alloush believes that the US needs Turkey to create some balances within NATO concerning its dealings with the Ukraine war. Therefore, over the past year and a half, the US has been keen not to upset Turkey, which played a key role in Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO. “For this reason, I don’t think Washington will lose political cards with Ankara to limit rapprochement with al-Assad.”

What will Washington do?

Turkish statements indicate real steps by Ankara to normalize relations with Damascus, raising questions about what the US might offer Turkey to stop its rapprochement with al-Assad.

In this context, Mohammad al-Abdallah said that the current Biden administration has nothing to offer Erdoğan to deter him from rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad. At best, the US will increase sanctions on the Syrian regime if there is actual rapprochement between Erdoğan and al-Assad.

Al-Abdallah pointed out that during Donald Trump’s presidency, he allowed Turkish forces to conduct a ground operation against the SDF in Syria to alleviate concerns related to Turkish national security. Thus, should Trump win the presidency next October, he might offer Turkey some incentives to stop rapprochement with al-Assad, while Biden now is cautious that any serious step he might take towards Turkey or al-Assad could potentially affect his chances of re-election.

Outside US priorities

American engagement with the Syrian file has receded over the past years, according to the Jusoor Center for Studies. Despite Washington’s media assertions on supporting UN Resolution “2254” and peaceful change in Syria, its stance has actually been greatly influenced by the rapid regional and international changes in recent years, which have prioritized issues other than the Syrian cause for Washington.

Mohammad al-Abdallah, Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, noted that the Syrian file is not a priority for Biden, whose term is nearing its end, and he has not appointed a special envoy for the Syrian file to date.

Al-Abdallah pointed out that it might be better for the US for some regional countries to pursue rapprochement with al-Assad so that Washington or Western countries do not feel embarrassed later if they follow the path taken by the other countries that have engaged in normalization.

The decline in US interest in the Syrian file is also due to its preoccupation with other global issues, primarily the Ukraine war, which has cost the United States a lot financially in terms of military and relief support, in addition to other issues such as hosting Afghan migrants who headed to the United States and Europe, and the occurrence of a migration wave from most conflict-affected countries to the US and the European Union.

Moreover, the Gaza war has become one of the significant issues that have overshadowed Biden’s priorities, as he has focused for months on achieving his proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza, exerting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept this proposal.

The path of rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime officially began on December 28, 2023, aiming to restore political relations between the two sides after a severance since 2011, due to the Syrian regime’s security handling of the popular uprising in 2011, and Turkey’s support for the protests, followed by its support for opposition factions and their spread in northern Syria along with military formations backed by Turkey.

After a series of meetings at the level of foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers, and a meeting involving defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of the four-party track participants (Turkey, the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran), Moscow announced on January 29 the official collapse of the rapprochement path between the two sides.

However, the path was revived again on May 31, when Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani revealed a future Iraqi role to achieve “reconciliation” between Turkey and the regime. This was followed by a meeting between the Russian envoy in Damascus and al-Assad, after which statements accelerated from both Ankara and Damascus about restoring relations between the two countries to their previous state.

 

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