Recent weeks have brought fresh talk of ‘normalisation’ between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s central Syrian government in Damascus. In the context of his ongoing efforts to secure a greenlight for a fresh military operation against regions under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), Turkish President Erdoğan has said he is ready to send Turkish officials to Damascus, following years of at least nominal opposition to Assad remaining in power.
While these proposals have yet to result in open meetings in Damascus, the two countries’ intelligence services are known to regularly meet in the Syrian capital for intelligence-sharing, and as it seems increasingly clear Assad’s de facto rule will continue, AANES’ political and military representatives have continued to sound the alarm over the two countries’ coordination and cooperation. Medya News spoke to Calvin Wilder, an analyst in the Non-State Actors’ Team at the Newlines Institute in Washington DC, to find out more.
What is the current state of play between Damascus and Ankara?
For most of the Syrian conflict, Turkey’s position has been that Assad must go and that any settlement has to involve a transition in the Syrian government. So the big shift rhetorically in the past year is that Erdoğan has walked that back, and said there can be a resolution to the conflict where the government stays in power. That’s been a public statement with a lot of fanfare – in practice, that’s been the de facto Turkish position for a long time.
We’re now seeing ‘talk about talks’ from Erdoğan. Will we see any practical change on the ground?
There are two big questions at stake – one is what happens to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkey’s been very clear it would like these refugees to go home, and Assad’s been clear, at least in theory, that he would like these refugees to be repatriated, but they’ve been emphatic that they don’t want to be, and that certain concessions would need to be made…
The second question that’s being settled right now is what will happen with the zone of Turkish occupation in northern Syria. Turkey occupies a large swathe of territory in northern Syria, and from Assad’s perspective a settlement would mean retaking control of that territory in some capacity… This would be a follow-up to the 1998 Adana deal, which gave Turkey authority to conduct limited security operations up to 5km deep into northern Syria against alleged PKK operatives, and what Turkey is pushing for now is 30km.
What is the US stance on a potential takeover of Manbij or Tel Rifaat by Turkish forces?
The US probably wouldn’t view that as being as threatening [as a Kobane operation]. You wouldn’t have the same immediate risk of US collapse you had in 2019, when Turkey rapidly took control of swathes of northern Syria, and it wasn’t at all clear if the US was going to be able to stay.
That said, the US has been very emphatic and has singled out those areas specifically in statements by Ned Price, the spokesperson for the State Department, saying we don’t want to see operations there.
More broadly, is Washington concerned by Turkey’s overtures to Damascus?
The public position is pretty clear – that they’re opposed to normalisation with Assad, and don’t want this to happen. Privately, there’s a lot of ambiguity over how strongly the US feels that… the view in Washington is you want to put pressure on Assad and that one way or another, the future government will be a little more conducive to what the US wants to see in Syria… But there has been, quietly, a lot of ambiguity over how hard the US are willing to push allies on that. If there’s some quiet intelligence sharing between Turkey and Syria on perceived intelligence threats, perhaps the US isn’t willing to die on that hill.
Given Turkey’s pivot toward Damascus, should the USA be looking to promote the AANES as a genuinely alternative political system in Syria?
The issue is that the US feels very strongly they’re not engaged in a state-building project in northern Syria, and don’t want to be backing any separatist ambitions in North and East Syria. Short of doing that, the idea of building up competent governing institutions, the ability to pump and distribute oil from the oilfields in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment, making sure the agriculture is still sustainable… These projects that increase the stability and quality of life there benefit the AANES’ negotiating stance vis-a-vis Damascus to promote a political settlement with a more federal structure, and more political rights in NES.