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Turkey's Erdogan Eyes Reset With Syria

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks after a cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey, May 17, 2021. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via Reuters)

Turkey, a strong supporter backer of the Syrian opposition, is indicating that it could now be ready for talks with the Damascus regime. Ankara severed its diplomatic ties with the government of President Bashar al-Assad at the start of Syria’s civil war but is now looking to return millions of Syrian refugees.

Referring to his nation’s relations with the Syrian regime, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently told reporters, “Political dialogue and diplomacy cannot be cut off between states.”

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed he recently held talks with his Syrian counterpart.

Cavusoglu said he had a brief chat with the Syrian foreign minister on the sidelines of a meeting, adding that he told the top Syrian diplomat that Turkey believes there will be peace between the Assad regime and the opposition. The Turkish foreign minister said Turkey is ready to help in such circumstances.

Ankara severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2011, and until recently, Erdogan was among the staunchest critics of President Assad.

Syrian rebels angrily protested, burning Turkish flags as they received news of the discussion between the Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers.

Galip Dalay, a Turkey analyst at Chatham House, said the Syrian rebels have good reason to be concerned, since the Turkish government has been among their strongest military and political backers.

“[It’s] terrible for the Syrian opposition in Turkey,” he said. “Because of the trouble they were facing, they were already more and more turning into Turkey’s proxies, and now that will be basically the nail in the coffin of the Syrian opposition. But some of the groups there might also be decoupling between Turkey and some of the Syrian opposition groups.”

Analysts say Erdogan could be looking for a rapprochement with Damascus to get rid of Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG from its border. Ankara accuses the YPG of having links to an insurgency inside Turkey.

Facing mounting public pressure, Erdogan is also pledging to return millions of Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey. But Turkey’s last ambassador to Syria, Omer Onhon, said Ankara needs to be cautious in its dealings with Damascus.

“From our perspective, we need to feel secure definitely,” he said. “And the second thing, of course, we need to see that Syria is secure for the return of Syrians in Turkey and in other countries. So, the regime has to prove that they are sincere in seeking a real political solution. But up to now, this is not the case.”

Time may not be on Erdogan’s side. He faces reelection next year and is languishing in the polls, with many voters citing the presence of Syrian refugees as one of his biggest election liabilities.

The hand of Moscow could also be a factor in Erdogan’s deliberations, said analyst Dalay.

“This is precisely in line with the Russian vision of Syria,” he said. “The core of it is that Turkey needs to engage Damascus. That the road to Turkey's concerns in Syria goes through Damascus, so that’s the message that Putin and Russia has been sending to Turkey. And what will come out of it, how Turkey will follow through is a big question because Turkey has a significant military presence there (Syria). So, Syria would insist on the withdrawal of the Turkish presence from Syria. And this is a very difficult position in terms of foreign and domestic policy.”

Ankara controls a large swathe of Syrian territory along the Turkish border, seized in its fight against the Kurdish YPG group.

Assad has repeatedly called for the unconditional withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory — a demand the Syrian president could make face-to-face with Erdogan in September, when both leaders are invited to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.