Against the wishes of Washington, both the Syrian and Turkish leaderships seem to be coming closer to re-establishing ties. After an 11-year break in relations, could such a rapprochement pave the way to closing the final chapter of the brutal Syrian war by breaking the current stalemate?
According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the diplomat could meet his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, as early as February to further conversations regarding reopening ties between both governments. Despite protest from US state department spokesperson Ned Price, who said that the US does “not support countries upgrading their relations or expressing support to rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar Assad,” Ankara and Damascus continue their journey towards normalization.
The first major step taken towards rebuilding ties occurred in late December, when the defense ministers of both Türkiye and Syria were reported to have met in Moscow. What emerged from this meeting was Ankara’s verbal insistence on respecting Syrian territorial integrity, solving the ongoing refugee crisis and defending against “all terror groups” that threaten Türkiye’s border. This has caused a lot of speculation regarding the conditions that will be put in place for a proper restoration of ties, from both sides.
From the Turkish government’s perspective, rapprochement with Damascus could bring with it a number of benefits, including combating the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are primarily controlled by the YPG group, considered to be a terrorist organization by Ankara. Late last year, in November, Türkiye launched an air force campaign, branded Operation Claw-Sword, which was aimed at striking YPG targets in northeastern Syria. According to the Turkish government, the YPG represents a threat to national security. It was accused of masterminding a bombing attack in central Istanbul last year, and the air operation was framed as Türkiye’s response. Also on Ankara’s stated agenda is a third ground incursion into northern Syria, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated could occur at any time, aimed at establishing a 30-mile deep “security strip” in the north of Syria and Iraq, along the Turkish border.
Türkiye currently gives shelter to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, making it the world’s largest refugee hosting nation, and is now being urged to do something about repatriating some of those refugees who can return to their home country, following the restoration of peace in war-torn Syria. A potential normalization of ties between Damascus and Ankara could hold the key towards negotiating not only a broader settlement to the conflict in Syria, but also agreements on the issues of refugees and combating the Kurdish armed groups inside Syrian territory.
For Damascus, Bashar Assad’s government has been unable to launch any significant military efforts since 2019, with Türkiye’s military entrenchment inside Syria’s Idlib province preventing the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies from defeating the Al-Qaeda offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which largely controls the area. Türkiye also ran two incursions into the north of Syria, first in the West in 2018, and then the East in 2019, occupying strips of Syrian territory, alongside a proxy force called the Syrian National Army (SNA).
In addition to seeking a Turkish withdrawal from pockets of Syrian territory in the north, a persisting problem for Damascus is the de facto US occupation of a third of the country. The American military, along with its Kurdish proxy force, the SDF, occupies northeastern Syria, where the most fertile agricultural lands, along with 90% of the country’s oil resources, are located. While attacking either Idlib or the northeast would likely bring the SAA into direct conflict with either the US or Türkiye, a normalization of ties with Ankara could dramatically change the equation.
If the Syrian government is to adopt the Turkish position, regarding the SDF being composed of terrorist groups and representing a security threat, hypothetically an agreement could be reached whereby any future Turkish offensive in the north could be followed by a Syrian offensive to cross the Euphrates River and liberate its territory surrounding the al-Omar oil fields. In both previous Turkish offensives into Syria, the US forces that were stationed there to back their Kurdish allies, exited the territory altogether, likely fearing an unnecessary confrontation with a fellow NATO power. The US military also has no official legal right to be at war in Syria, as no congressional approval was given for occupation of territory or war efforts. If Türkiye invades, the US will likely withdraw from northeastern Syria again and then leave an opportunity open for the Syrian government.
At the very least, if Syria can negotiate a withdrawal of Turkish forces from the country’s northwest, this could allow for the re-opening of vital routes between Aleppo and Damascus, lead to an opening for an offensive in Idlib and/or even pave the way to a final peace agreement to close the conflict. Although both Türkiye and Syria have been mortal enemies during the war, with Ankara proving perhaps the biggest aid to the effort to overthrow the government of Bashar Assad, it became inevitable that both sides would eventually have to reconcile at some point, after Syria’s government proved victorious against all the various factions that fought against it in the US-backed war inside the country.
The biggest challenge, even if the Syrian government is able to retake most of the country’s territory, is now the West’s economic sanctions that have crippled the nation’s economy and plunged the civilian population into mass poverty. Perhaps restoring control of its agricultural lands and natural resources could aid in recovery. However, the sanctions are clearly hindering reconstruction efforts, the import of vital goods and have caused economic, electricity, gas, water and various other crises inside the country. All of these effects of the sanctions and more, including exacerbating the current cholera outbreak in Syria, have prompted UN expert Alena Douhan to call on the West to unilaterally lift its “suffocating” sanctions. The Syrian government still has a long way to go to end the crisis and to revive the suffering nation, along with its people, however, the Türkiye-Syria rapprochement could serve as a step in the right direction.