Turkey has recently suggested that it wants to establish dialogue with the Syrian government after years of fraught relations. The gesture came as a surprise to many given there is little indication that such talks would lead to any tangible breakthrough. There remains a bitter hostility and distrust between presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar Al Assad more than a decade after Turkey threw its weight behind Syrian opposition fighters battling Assad’s forces. Russia at one time could have played the mediator role, but the invasion of Ukraine means Moscow is in no position to take on such a task now.
Erdogan’s initiative becomes less puzzling, however, when viewed through the lens of the upcoming general elections in Turkey. By appearing to be willing to mend ties with Assad, Erdogan hopes to ease the widespread resentment caused by his policies toward Syria and its refugees, which might, among other issues, cost him the 2023 elections.
Ankara’s willingness to enter talks with Damascus was revealed by the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper. Using anonymous sources, the Turkish daily reported that Turkey’s main priorities for restoring ties with Syria were to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their country and to counter the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has been locked in a decades-long battle with militants from the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organization.
In an attempt to appear optimistic, Turkish government officials quoted by the newspaper framed Assad’s visit last month to the United Arab Emirates as a sign that he is seeking new openings and support. The sources also blamed Russia and Iran for obstructing previous opportunities to improve relations with Syria. Through these remarks, they indicated that the situation is now more suitable for a new beginning with Damascus given that the Syrian regime’s closest allies are preoccupied with their own issues: Russia with Ukraine and Iran with the nuclear talks.
However, Damascus does not seem as eager to return the apparent good will. Syrian foreign ministry sources, quoted by the pro-government daily Al Watan newspaper, stated that Syria remains firm on its pre-conditions to entering any dialogue with Turkey. Chiefly among these is the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria, which is a deal-breaker for Turkey. The latter’s presence in Syria is the main obstacle preventing the regime from recapturing the last opposition-held pocket in the northwest. Assad’s ability to achieve such a military victory would strip Turkey of its main negotiating card in Syria. It would also send more Syrian refugees to Turkey, which would exacerbate Erdogan’s problems instead of solving them.
The Syrian regime’s reluctance to seek reconciliation with Ankara does not appear to be a typical pre-negotiations tactic. The relatively short window before the Turkish general elections means that any dialogue would only benefit Turkey. Entering such talks would allow Erdogan to gain political ground at home, regardless of the outcome. Besides, Assad’s personal hatred of Erdogan means he would avoid doing anything that would help Erdogan domestically in the hope he would be ousted in the elections and replaced with a friendlier government in Turkey.
That his initiative could bear no fruit appears to be secondary to Erdogan. The Turkish president hopes that even by just sending conciliatory signals to Syria he would help lift his image at home and drum up political support. There is deep resentment among the Turkish population toward the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. In Turkey’s polarized political climate, the Syrian refugees are viewed as a by-product of Erdogan’s failed Syria policy. As such, many analysts view them as one of the main causes behind the ruling Justice and Development Party’s historic loss in local elections in 2019.
As a result, the Turkish government’s approach to Syrian refugees changed significantly. Security forces started to round up refugees and send them back to the Turkish provinces where they were registered. Some have been deported while others are being encouraged to return to Syria.
Nonetheless, Erdogan’s main political opponent, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), continued to criticize the Turkish government’s handling of the issue and promised to deal directly with Assad to send Syrian refugees back. Earlier this year, the CHP’s leader pledged to prepare the groundwork for returning refugees within two years.
In the absence of mass deportations before the elections, Erdogan appears to be left with only one choice: Mimicking the CHP’s promise. Through such a move, Erdogan hopes to reconnect with his election ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, as well as many of his former supporters who currently prioritize the return of Syrian refugees over their loyalty to the ruling party.
Even if it is unsuccessful, the Turkish government would be indirectly showing Turkish voters that it is trying to fix its mistakes by attempting to engage with Assad to return the refugees. It would also offer a hint to voters of an end to Ankara’s direct intervention in Syria.
It is not clear how successful Erdogan’s calculated move will be in reconnecting with those Turks who withdrew their support for him over his Syria policy. But what seems to be certain is that Assad and Erdogan will not be shaking hands anytime soon.
Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.