In December 2022, the Syrian, Turkish, and Russian defense ministers met and agreed to continue with trilateral meetings that aim to bring peace and stability to Syria, which has been embroiled in a civil war for over a decade. Turkey wants to address its security concerns and achieve its interests in Syria. However, restoring the relationship between Ankara and Damascus is challenging due to the long history of political dissonance and the involvement of regional powers.
After backing the Syrian armed and political opposition for years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his intention to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the summer of 2022. Russia, one of the main actors in Syria, supports reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus, but there are questions about how long this diplomatic detente will last.
Erdoğan’s newfound eagerness to repair relations with Assad is a sharp reversal from over a decade of Turkish policy. In 2010, Turkey announced a “Policy of Zero Problems” with its neighbors as a way to refine its relationships and become a regional leader. Erdoğan also wanted to export Turkey’s political Islam model to the Arab countries as a way to establish religious leadership in the region.
While it remains to be seen how the relationship between the two countries will develop in the future, rapprochement between Turkey and Syria is a step toward stability and peace in the region.
Despite this policy and his intentions, it turns out that Turkey has zero friends on its borders — and multiple problems with the countries it considers its friends. For example, during the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey was slow to react, ultimately “positioning itself as a status-quo power, unwilling to see dramatic change.” Erdoğan also hosted the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, raising concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Egypt and other Arab countries that oppose the Brotherhood and its activities. And Turkey supported Qatar when other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council put embargoes on the island, strengthening the two states’ economic times.
Turkey has always been interested in securing its southwestern border against the Kurdish militants operating in northern Syria. However, Ankara received many warning signals from the United States, Russia, and Iran about launching a new military operation to combat these groups. The United States has especially been concerned about Turkey’s military operations reducing the capabilities of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which helped defeat ISIS. As Turkey’s military operations have proved to be unsuccessful in eliminating the Kurdish threat, it seems that for Erdoğan, the most cost-effective way to address his security concerns is through rapprochement with the Assad regime.
Erdoğan is also under a great deal of domestic pressure because of the number of Syrian refugees that Turkey is hosting. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey hosts around 4 million Syrian refugees. Many Turks believe that Syrian refugees receive more public financial assistance than Turkish citizens and that they have better access to low-wage jobs. The Turkish opposition has been using this crisis to point out Erdoğan’s failure to deal with the refugees’ economic impact.
Keeping an eye on Turkey’s upcoming elections, scheduled for mid-2023, Erdoğan and his party are looking for effective ways to “solve” the refugee crisis. Rapprochement with Assad may well be a solution that Erdoğan is seeking to win reelection.
Finally, Erdoğan is desperate to fix Turkey’s image and reputation, which has taken a hit due to his administration’s various draconian policies. Erdoğan was the only leader with the UN Secretary-General to secure two rounds of agreements on grain and fertilizer from Ukraine, which helped to reduce prices worldwide. He wants to build on that success and negotiate with Russia and Ukraine for potential peace talks. In Syria, Erdoğan wants to emerge as an international leader and reach peace, which will benefit him directly and reduce internal congestion.
THE STEPPING STONE FOR GOOD RELATIONS
The summit between Erdoğan and Assad will likely happen, but the summit is not the goal. Analysts believe both leaders have good intentions and have the potential to solve the existing problems. However, a lasting solution will require much effort and concessions from both sides. Domestically, Erdoğan has faced fierce resistance from the Syrian opposition, demanding that he stop dealing with Assad. For example, the Syrian opposition has openly opposed Erdoğan’s rapprochement with Assad, and the Syrian National Coalition demanded an emergency meeting with Turkish officials to block the rapprochement process. While it is not clear how Ankara would keep its support to the opposition, Turkey, after that meeting, announced that it would keep defending the rights of the Syrian people for democracy and freedom.
Russia hosted the meeting of the defense ministers of Syria and Turkey and is facilitating the process of rapprochement between the two countries. Moscow wants to close this ongoing chaos in Syria to focus on the more significant conflict in Ukraine. Not only this, President Vladimir Putin wants political and diplomatic support from Iran, Syria, and Turkey. For Putin, resolving the Syrian war would allow Moscow to secure political backing from Erdoğan, so the latter can facilitate negotiations later with the West when needed.
On the other hand, Washington has called on countries not to deal with the brutal Assad regime. The conflict of interest between Washington and Ankara on Syria has become an issue that disrupts the bilateral relationship. While it remains to be seen how the relationship between the two countries will develop in the future, rapprochement between Turkey and Syria could be a step toward stability and peace in the region.
Marco Mossad has a Master’s in International Relations from Liberty University, focusing on cybersecurity, international security, and the MENA region.