Erdogan Opens Door to Talks With Assad
A child holds the flags of Turkey and Syria on November 24, 2022 at an event in Antalya, Turkey that broght together refugee children from Syria and Ukraine. (Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Erdogan Opens Door to Talks With Assad

Turkey’s president has been a long-time foe of Syrian President Bashar Assad while supporting rebel forces in Syria’s long-running civil war

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested he is open to talking with Syrian President Bashar Assad after years of supporting opposition forces and ahead of next year’s Turkish elections in which the return of refugees will likely be a key talking point.

On Wednesday, Erdogan responded to questions from reporters about the possibility of a meeting with Assad after being photographed shaking hands with another long-time foe, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“There can be no resentment in politics. In the end, steps will be taken under the most favorable conditions,” Erdogan said, according to The Associated Press.

The Turkish president also raised the possibility of talks with Assad last month.

Earlier this week, Turkey and members of the Syrian regime and opposition held talks in Astana alongside Russia and Iran on the subject of the Syrian civil war, which led millions of Syrians displaced by the conflict to flee to Turkey.

Omer Özkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara, told The Media Line that he believes Erdogan is trying to take away a talking point of the opposition, which has brought up the possibility of speaking with Assad.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has suggested holding talks with Assad since 2018 in order to facilitate the return of refugees, who have become a lightning rod for economic discontent in Turkey.

Tensions have increased with the arrival of more refugees from Afghanistan and it would likely be a political boost for Erdogan to be seen working toward their return ahead of what is set to be his toughest election since coming to power nearly 20 years ago.

Özkizilcik says that Turkey also wants to appease Russia, Assad’s most powerful supporter, by signaling that it would be willing to work with the dictator, but he cautioned that a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria is highly unlikely.

“This is just talk at the moment,” he said.

However, if rapprochement does happen, Özkizilcik believes Ankara’s top goals would be a political settlement in Syria, eradicating the US-backed Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units or YPG, and helping the voluntary return of refugees.

It’s possible that Turkish rapprochement with the Assad regime could kick off something new, an entirely new dimension as Turkey would be the first NATO state to approach the Assad regime, and this is actually the goal of Russia

There are more Syrian refugees in Turkey than in any other country. In recent years, some have said they were forced to return to Syria amid strong anti-refugee sentiments from the Turkish population.

Many Syrians living abroad are against the Assad regime, and some publicly oppose the president, so it is unlikely they would feel safe in Syria.

Özkizilcik says it is doubtful that Turkey could achieve these goals as Assad has shown he does not want to compromise politically and that he has worked with the YPG.

Such talks could be a boost for Turkey’s relations with Russia, a country it has moved closer to in recent years, but may also hinder ties with its NATO ally the US.

“A possible talk between Turkey and the Assad regime would be appreciated by Russia definitely, and this would be seen by Russia as a major win [for] their policies in the Middle East,” he said.

Özkizilcik also said that the US no longer seems very interested in whether talks take place between Assad and other leaders, but that could be different with Turkey, the main supporter of Syrian opposition forces.

“It’s possible that Turkish rapprochement with the Assad regime could kick off something new, an entirely new dimension as Turkey would be the first NATO state to approach the Assad regime, and this is actually the goal of Russia,” he said.

On the same day that Erdogan raised the possibility of speaking with the Syrian president, he also discussed a new military operation, dubbed Claw-Sword, in northern Syrian and Iraq where Turkey has carried out airstrikes, which began on Sunday and targets the bases of Kurdish armed militias.

Ankara says those fighters are connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militia which has carried out a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist organization by Washington, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst for the risk intelligence company Rane, says that Turkey must cooperate with Damascus if it wants to achieve its top goal of preventing a Kurdish state.

Bohl adds that Ankara has realized that others will normalize relations with Assad regardless of what Turkey does.

“The reality is that Syria has won the civil war and other regional powers like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will normalize with Damascus,” Bohl told The Media Line.

“If it chooses not to cooperate with Damascus, then the normalization trend that’s happening elsewhere will simply strengthen Syria and leave Turkey on the sidelines as the Kurdish northeast develops into a political entity that is a threat to Ankara’s long-term interests,” he said.

 

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