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Turkey Signals Possible Rapprochement With Syria   

FILE - A convoy transporting humanitarian aid crosses into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on July 8, 2022.
FILE - A convoy transporting humanitarian aid crosses into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on July 8, 2022.

Recently there have been signs of reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, which have been at odds for more than a decade as Ankara supported Syrian rebel forces fighting Damascus.

Pro-government daily Hurriyet reported September 16 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had expressed a wish to meet his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Uzbekistan, although Assad was not there.

"I wish Assad had come to Uzbekistan; I would have spoken to him," Erdogan said in a closed meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party, according to Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi.

Also, last month, Erdogan reportedly said he would never rule out dialogue with Syria, adding that "we should take further steps with Syria."

Reuters reported September 15 that Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, had met multiple times with his counterpart, Syrian National Security Bureau Chairman Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus in recent weeks, according to four sources.

‘Change in rhetoric’

Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, told VOA these developments are not new, as Turkey has been working closely with the Assad regime since 2016.

"I think the new thing that we're seeing right now is the change in rhetoric. We are hearing from Turkish officials more vocally that normalization with the regime is a possibility," Tol said during an interview via phone in response to questions about Erdogan’s recent statement regarding relations with Syria.

"But, in reality, if you look at all the developments that have been happening since 2016, I don't think this is shocking."

Tol said that since Erdogan started aligning his party with the nationalists to consolidate power, his top priority has shifted from toppling the Assad regime to curbing Kurdish advances in northern Syria.

"To realize that goal, he needed not only a Russian green light but also he had to work closely with the regime itself. … So, there was a tacit understanding between the two—while Erdogan attacks the Kurds, Assad looks the other way," Tol said.

Turkey has conducted four military operations in Syria since 2016, and it considers the armed Kurdish YPG militia, a key part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria to be a national security threat.

Ankara views the Syrian Democratic Forces to be a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which both Turkey and the United States have designated a terrorist organization.

NATO member Turkey has a military presence in large swaths of northern Syria. Damascus considers Turkey an occupying power and calls for its unconditional withdrawal from Syria.

Military incursion

Erdogan announced plans in June to launch a new military incursion in northern Syria, targeting the Tal Rifaat and Manbij areas to form a safe zone along the Syrian border. But that has not happened yet.

Russian and pro-Syrian government forces have a presence in these areas, and Russia has not endorsed Turkey's operation.

Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and Middle East analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, thinks that Erdogan saw an opportunity for a new military operation while the U.S. and Russia mostly focused on Ukraine.

Lund notes that Ankara does not need to ask for Washington’s green light as the United States is not involved with the SDF forces in the area where Turkey is eyeing an operation.

"Erdogan felt that Russia has weakened and is under more international pressure, so they won't be able to bring the same level of push back in Syria. So, this is basically a good moment to go after the Syrian Democratic Forces because the United States and the Europeans will offer more muted criticism than they would normally do and the Russians will be more open to negotiating at Assad's expense," Lund told VOA in a conversation.

"But Russia successfully parried that and drew Erdogan into a negotiation process where the counter demand is that he must talk to Assad, or not Assad personally perhaps, but some form of normalization of their relationship," Lund added.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said last Monday that Moscow is willing to organize a meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

"We think that [a foreign minister-level meeting] would be useful. We are talking about establishing contacts, now so far through the military and intelligence services — there have been such contacts," Bogdanov said, responding to a question on the possibility of such a meeting.

On the other hand, Mekdad told Sputnik on Saturday that there was no contact or meeting with the Turkish officials during the UNGA. “There is no negotiation, no contact, at least nothing at the level of foreign ministers," Mekdad said.

Mekdad also accused Turkey of not fulfilling the agreed commitments in the Astana process without elaborating on them. Erdogan, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin came together in Tehran for Astana talks in July.

"The only obstacle to the peace process is Turkey's lack of commitment,” Mekdad told Sputnik on the sidelines of the UNGA.

Refugees’ return

Turkey's pro-government daily, Sabah, reported on September 17 that Syrian and Turkish intelligence officials discussed several issues, including the completion of Syria’s new constitution process, revoking its expropriation law that allowed Syria’s government to confiscate property left behind by refugees, and the safe return of those refugees from Syria. Turkey hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world.”

Turkey’s state-run Disaster and Emergency Management Authority announced that over 68,000 briquette houses have been built in Syria for the return of the refugees.

International rights groups, including Amnesty International, say war-torn Syria is still not safe for return.

Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert and the chief content officer at Metamorphic Media, says that the parameters of Turkish foreign policy on Syria have not changed since 2016, but what has changed is that domestic political dynamics in Turkey have gotten so bad for Erdogan’s party.

Stein cited rising anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in Turkey and the country’s economic crisis, with an official inflation last month of 80.2%.

The next presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for next June, but the opposition parties are calling for snap elections, which Erdogan has dismissed. The six-opposition-party alliance against Erdogan has promised to return Syrian refugees humanely. On the other hand, the far-right Victory Party calls for forced deportations of Syrian refugees, blaming them for the rising food prices.

"No Turkish person cares about Bashar al-Assad. What people care about in Turkey is the cost of living is going up, and that food prices are out of control and wages are remaining stagnant," Stein told VOA.

Stein said he does not expect any real progress on Turkey and Syria rapprochement and added, "I think the value for Erdogan now is that he can tell constituents he is working on a problem."

This story originated in VOA's Turkish Service.