Turkey’s Syria policy, after a long involvement in the country’s 11-year conflict, has shifted focus from toppling President Bashar al-Assad to seizing control of territory from Kurdish-led groups on the Turkish border. But regional experts say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent drive for a new military incursion in northern Syria and attempts to build bridges with his Syrian counterpart are actually all about his floundering domestic position ahead of the 2023 elections.
Erdoğan condemned Assad’s violent suppression of protests in 2011 and called for the Syrian President’s resignation. In the decade since, Turkey has been the main supporter of the Syrian rebels, training and arming groups such as the Free Syrian Army.
However, Assad’s forces have clawed back control of most Syrian territory, forcing most rebels and opposition civilians back to an enclave in the western Idlib province. As the rebel cause floundered, Turkey turned its attention to Kurdish-led autonomous administrations in North and East Syria, launching a series of military offensives against them since 2016 and seizing large areas south of the Turkey-Syria border.
Özgür Politika columnist Zeki Akıl said Turkey’s plans to launch a new cross-border offensive this year are motivated by domestic concerns, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) facing economic woes and a slump in popularity at home in the run-up to crucial national elections in 2023.
For Akıl, the planned operation against Kurdish-led groups aims to harness widespread nationalistic sentiment in Turkey during the run-up to the election. Groups from Turkey’s Kurdish community – the country’s largest ethnic minority – have struggled for decades for self-rule, and hard-line Turkish nationalists fiercely opposed Kurdish calls for autonomy. Ankara views the Syrian-Kurdish organisations as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey defines as a terrorist organisation and Turkish nationalists see as a major threat to the country’s integrity.
“The elections are nearing, the economy in Turkey has hit the floor and the AKP has lost the support of the public,” Akıl said in a 13 August column. Thus, the AKP aimed to “whip up racism and nationalism and cover up domestic problems.”
Likewise, some analysts say the sudden pivot toward rapprochement with Assad’s regime is an attempt to assuage voters’ long-running concerns about Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
“Erdoğan’s main priority is to win the election,” Syria expert and Chatham House scholar Haid Haid told Deutsche Welle in an article published on Wednesday.
Opening a dialogue with Assad, Haid said, would allow the Turkish president to disarm one of the opposition’s greatest weapons ahead of the election, as voters in the country have long expressed concerns about the economic burden Turkey has borne due to the Syrian conflict and the millions of refugees it hosts.
“Because the opposition parties have promised to establish a dialogue with Assad and send the refugees back home,” Haid said. “But now, Erdoğan aims to deprive them of one of their trump cards by adopting the same rhetoric.”
This desire has led Turkish officials over the past year to attempt to break the ice with Syria after a decade of frosty silence. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu revealed that he had held a standing meeting with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad during a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in October. Çavuşoğlu also expressed his desire to open a dialogue between Assad and the Syrian opposition, remarks that sparked calls for protests among Syrians.
Though the recent moves have been welcomed by Turkey’s electoral alliance partners in the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Haid said the chances of the Syrian side reciprocating in the near future are slim.
“It doesn’t look likely that Assad will agree to starting a dialogue before the elections in Turkey,” Haid told Deutsche Welle. “Because if he does, it will amount to a grand gesture to Erdoğan that will strengthen him in the elections. And Assad wouldn’t want to do that.”
At the same time, while Turkey’s conditions for normalising relations with Assad would likely depend on a stipulation that Kurdish-led organisations were removed from the border, Ankara would be unlikely to reach its goal of eliminating the PKK through such an agreement, said Bente Scheller, the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Middle East office.
Scheller noted that the PKK and Assad regime have collaborated in the past, likely referring to a notable period in the 1990s when ties became fraught between Ankara and Damascus due to PKK guerrillas entering Turkey from the Syrian border.
“Even if it normalises relations with Turkey, the Assad regime will preserve the PKK as a means to apply pressure on Turkey in the future,” Scheller told Deutsche Welle.
And, while Scheller said that with the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, Turkey would be unlikely to face much concrete international opposition to a possible military operation, the German Syria expert warned that it would not find it easy to control new territories it took under control.
Since militants from armed groups do not limit themselves according to state borders, Scheller also expressed doubts about the validity Turkey’s professed plan to create a 30-km deep “safe zone” stretching along the Syrian side of the border.
“If they want to cause harm, they will,” she said, referring to militants. “We’ve seen this throughout the history of armed groups.”