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Ankara Calls for Reset in Syrian Relations

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - A man carries an injured child after four rockets fired from Syria slammed into the southern Turkish town of Kilis, killing four Syrians — including three children — in the latest deadly cross-border strike to panic residents, April 18, 2016.

FILE - A man carries an injured child after four rockets fired from Syria slammed into the southern Turkish town of Kilis, killing four Syrians — including three children — in the latest deadly cross-border strike to panic residents, April 18, 2016.

Turkey's prime minister says he is sure relations will normalize with Syria. Bilateral relations collapsed as a result of Ankara’s backing of the Syrian opposition, but a major change in Turkish foreign policy could be in the offing.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim's call for good relations with Syria is being seen as a major policy reversal.

Since the breakout of the Syrian civil war, Ankara has been one of the strongest backers of the opposition, calling for the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Gradual normalization

Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in the region, says the process of normalization with Syria will be step by step.

"It will be basically, first of all a counterterrorism approach; but, if it moves forward, then it might move to better political relations," he said.

Selcen says Ankara will be looking to Damascus to prevent Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG from securing an autonomous region on Turkey’s border. Ankara accuses the YPG of being linked to the Turkish PKK, which government forces are currently fighting.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a military vehilce in the southeast of Qamishli city, Syria, April 22, 2016.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a military vehilce in the southeast of Qamishli city, Syria, April 22, 2016.

Political columnist Semih Idiz, of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper and Al Monitor website, says any rapprochement efforts with Damascus will likely cause alarm among Syrian rebels fighting the regime.

"Syrian rebels are wondering where all this is going, as far as their relationship with Turkey is concerned. It was almost a tacit understanding amongst diplomats that Turkey was somehow assisting Jihadist groups," said Idiz.

Davutoglu's removal

Ankara officially denies it is providing arms to Syrian rebels; but, observers say Turkey’s long border with Syria is one of the main supply routes for opposition forces.

The Syrian towns of Azaz and Marea, near the Turkey border

The Syrian towns of Azaz and Marea, near the Turkey border

Former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was widely seen as the architect of Turkey’s Syria policy, strongly backing the rebels and calling for the removal of Assad. Analysts say Davutoglu’s removal in May by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the door to a change in policy.

Officially, Ankara insists its Syria policy has not changed; but, former Turkish diplomat Selcen says with the Syrian rebels suffering a series of defeats, and the prospect of the regime seizing control of Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, events on the ground are also forcing Ankara’s hand.

People inspect the damage at a site after it was hit by shelling carried out by rebels at Syrian government-held areas of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, July 11, 2016.

People inspect the damage at a site after it was hit by shelling carried out by rebels at Syrian government-held areas of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, July 11, 2016.

"When Aleppo falls, that will be the last nail in the coffin of the Turkish policy, so it is quite a realistic approach to establish relations with Damascus, if not opportunistic so to speak," said Selcen. "Ankara seems to be eager to unplug the lifeline to the rebels. It will take time probably. It will be a bargaining chip. There are undenied rumors that Ankara and Damascus are contacting in Algiers, through Iran orchestrated talks."

Ankara’s reaching out to Damascus comes only weeks after successfully repairing relations with Russia and Israel. Further rapprochement efforts are expected with Iraq and Egypt as Ankara seeks to end its isolation.

Moving from idealism to pragmatism is how many analysts sum up the shift in Turkish foreign policy.

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