Turkey-Syria normalization on the horizon?

Musa Özuğurlu writes: Syria will certainly be one of the most important areas of Turkish foreign policy in 2021. Syria has suffered devastating damage as a result of negative relations with Turkey. So, it is not difficult for the Turkish government to persuade the public of the necessity of a re-convergence with Syria; however, does the that same ease exist for the Syrian leadership? 

Then Prime Minister Erdoğan meets Syrian President Assad at Aleppo city in northern Syria, April 3, 2007.

Musa Özuğurlu 

Syria will certainly be one of the most important areas of Turkish foreign policy in 2021. Thus, it seems salient to go over the main factors that must be dealt with this year regarding Syria.

Syria is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2021. This election process must be transparent, open to international observation, and include multiple candidates who are able to fairly compete. This will be a year in which potential political transitions will cement Syria's trajectory going forward, and that includes the presidential election. Other areas in which attention is needed from Syria are the reconstruction of the country, the future of Idlib, and developments regarding the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria.

Turkey is either directly or indirectly involved in all of these issues. Recently, the Syrian daily Al-Watan reported that a delegation from Turkey travelled to Damascus. This visit probably occurred because of pressure from Russia. We do not know what the respective demands of the Turkish and Syrian sides are during such meetings, but it is not difficult to make predictions given the priorities laid out in statements from from both sides.

Before the crisis, Turkey stated that they wanted the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to be involved in the Syrian administration, but Syria rejected this, saying that the Muslim Brotherhood specifically was a red line. From Turkey’s point of view, this was one reasons for aggression against Syria. Turkey continues to insist that the “opposition” be included in the administration, even if not under the name Muslim Brotherhood. Will Syria concede on this issue? Perhaps, there will be an agreement which both sides approve of.

The future of Idlib is an even more difficult issue for both sides. What Syria plans to do is already apparent. Its army will launch an operation in order to remove terrorist organizations in Idlib. However, Turkey has maintained “warm ties” with several groups, so this is likely to be more difficult for Turkey than Syria. What will Turkey do in the case that Syria insists on going forward with this plan? Lest we forget that Turkey has made huge investments in Syria, so much so that it seems as though the government never plans to leave the region. Perhaps, a long-term commitment to leave Syria with Russian assurances may be a potential solution to this situation.

The reconstruction of Syria whets Turkey's appetite, as it does for many other countries. Turkey, in urgent need of economic recovery and does not want to lose out on an opportunity with Iran or China. It will at least want to receive a piece of the cake. Maybe this will be used as a factor in Turkey persuading or being persuaded in regard to Idlib and the formation of the Syrian administration.

The most significant issue is the future of the Kurdish establishment. Procedurally, the approaches of both sides to the Kurdish problem have been entirely different, at least up to this point. Turkey has opted for a tougher stance via its definitions of national security. Syria, on the other hand, out of necessity, has opted for a gentler path. However, the fact that the Kurds have not given up cooperating with the U.S. may result in Ankara and Damascus becoming closer because of this issue. The Kurds have even progressed to calling for their “recognition.”

Syria (and later the “Axis of Resistance”) mainly wants the U.S. to leave the country. However, for the Kurds the real nightmare would start immediately after such a departure. For the moment, there are no signs that the U.S. intends to withdraw. Incoming President Biden cannot make such decision about Syrian interests alone, because in the U.S., certain institutions consider this to be an issue of “national interest.” Regarding this issue, Turkey and Syria have a common position in that the U.S. presence is preventing a ‘solution’ to the Kurdish problem. The question now becomes: Will Ankara and Damascus be able to join forces against the Kurds? It may be possible if they can find commonality on the issues of Idlib, reconstruction, and political transition in Syria. Each issue is a separate, but they can be viewed as interconnected bargaining chips for other issues.

Refugees are also an issue between Turkey and Syria. Syria says that they welcome the return of refugees, except for those who fought against the army. They say that this is necessary for the development of Syria’s human resources and economy, and for elections to be considered legitimate. However, while more than half of Syrian refugees previously said that they were eager to return, after years have passed, they have settled into the countries they are now living in. They are not confident in the stability of Syria. So, their wish to return home fades more and more each day. The Syrian leadership may want Erdoğan to act to resolve this issue and “persuade the refugees in Turkey to return.”

In fact, a title asking, “Is it possible for Syria to normalize relations with Turkey?” would probably be more appropriate for this article. Syria has suffered devastating damage as a result of negative relations with Turkey. So, it is not difficult for the Turkish government to persuade the public of the necessity of a re-convergence with Syria; however, does the that same ease exist for the Syrian leadership? 

The majority of the Syrian population sees Turkish President Erdoğan as responsible for their hardships. The Syrian administration has utilized this as a talking point thus far, but it seems it is not so easy for the Syrian leadership to convince its citizens. This is the most difficult topic at the negotiation table for the Syrian administration. Maybe a persuasion method will be used where the name Erdoğan will not be mentioned as frequently alongside labels such as “dear neighborly, friendly, and brotherly Turk.”

Blood has been shed on both sides. It no longer matters who accuses whom. A Syrian citizen I spoke to on the phone recently asked me whether Syria and Turkey will make up, saying, “This hostility will end, won’t it?” It is clear that people are in favor of the two countries reaching a solution regardless of past transgressions.

There is an additional fact that should be taken into account: Because of Turkey's past mistakes, the situation in Syria, and the developments in the region both countries have become codependent on each other, even without formal normalization. Perhaps both sides desire a process in which the past is redefined the responsible parties acknowledge their mistakes.

The talks recently held in Damascus are a start to this process, and we will see in the coming months whether this cooperation lasts. However, if the talks do continue, the issues mentioned above will certainly be the most important negotiating points between the two countries.