By Thomas von Osten-Sacken
Recently there has been talk of an imminent rapprochement or even reconciliation between the governments in Ankara and Damascus. The defense ministers of both countries recently met under the aegis of Russia, and now there is talk of a meeting of foreign ministers to follow soon. In addition, one hears the usual phrases about the importance of dialogue, peace and the sovereignty of the individual countries. From the background it sounds similar from the crisis-ridden Iran, so to speak the fourth in the league, since Syria is only very low, if at all, on the agenda of western countries. Only recently, during a visit to Ankara, did the Iranian foreign minister announce that he was very happy that Turkish-Syrian relations were now changing and he heard his Turkish colleague say that the positive development would benefit the entire region. Erdogan’s motivation The first articles are already appearing in European newspapers, the authors of which pretend that a solution between Turkey and Syria is within reach. The only problem is, even if they really wanted to, what could such a solution look like? To be sure, the Turkish government is in a crisis with elections approaching, in which all the polls indicate that they will no longer win a majority. That’s why Erdogan and his AKP are trying just about everything they can to vie for more votes. Since the issue of „Syrian refugees“ has been at the top of the list of problems that the Turks allegedly have for some time, and the opposition has been making big-mouthed announcements that millions of people will be deported to Syria if they win the elections, the Turkish president is under pressure.
After all, he opened the borders to Syria and gave massive support to the opposition to Assad. As a result, large parts of northwestern Syria were de facto militarily occupied and administered by Turkey. Well over a million internally displaced persons who do not want to come under the control of the Syrian regime again live in these areas. Turkey has invested large amounts of money in these areas, built schools and hospitals, carried out ethnic cleansing – especially in Afrin – and therefore has much to lose. If it were to evacuate these areas and leave them to Damascus and its allies, such a step would appear as a crushing defeat for Erdogan, which he can hardly afford. Erdogan just wants to invade north-east Syria (Rojava) again and clear the border of units of the local Kurdish self-government led by the PYD. The biggest obstacle is that the PYD, no matter how crazy that may sound, is allied with the USA as a partner in the fight against the Islamic State and also maintains excellent relations with Moscow. As long as Russia and the US do not agree to such an invasion, it would be associated with immense risks and could do the opposite of what Erdogan intends to do, which is to strengthen his position in the coming elections. The USA, on the other hand, recently made it clear that it does not want to stop its cooperation with the Kurdish militias or even withdraw from Syria. Ironically, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia could immediately agree on the demand for the withdrawal of American soldiers from Syria. The remaining US troops are a thorn in their side. Assad’s reaction And then? There is no question that the USA and the Kurdish militias have so far provided at least some guarantee that the Islamic State will not regain strength in the Syrian-Iraqi border area. No other power, least of all the weakened and thoroughly corrupt Syrian army, could play a similar role of order there. And what should happen after a US withdrawal? Will Damascus take control again? Or should Russia guarantee its residents that they will not have to suffer from Assad’s brutal repression again? Or should there simply be total chaos, which can hardly be in Turkey’s interest?
With this unyielding stance, the regime has managed to survive the last few years and is unlikely to say goodbye now. The reaction to the Turkish advances from Damascus was correspondingly clear: „The Syrian foreign minister said Saturday (in Tehran) that all Turkish forces must be withdrawn from Syria before engaging in a presidential meeting, and referred to ‚occupation‘ during a meeting with his Iranian counterpart.“ All previous international attempts in recent years to reach an agreement with the Syrian regime have failed, and the list of treaties broken by Damascus is alarmingly long. However, it is unlikely that Turkey will withdraw its troops from Syria in the foreseeable future. What exactly should be negotiated then? What else does the bankrupt regime in Damascus have to offer Turkey that Turkey has to offer to the Syrians? Sure, in Ankara they’d rather get rid of a few million refugees sooner rather than later, but they’re unlikely to be deported voluntarily to areas controlled by Assad. Should Syrian Kurdistan destabilize as a result of the invasion and further fighting, more refugees would probably come to Turkey as a result.
Little to negotiate
In short, there is little to negotiate without one side soemhow capitulating. But that would mean a loss of face – and for despots in the Middle East there is hardly anything worse. After more than ten years, the situation in Syria is so complicated, hopeless and muddled that a few high-level meetings will hardly bring about change, quite the contrary. Things have been comparatively quiet in Syria lately, and not because any problems have been solved, but because the actually untenable situation has been frozen. Everyone could somehow live with the status quo as long as Europe and the USA made the funds available for humanitarian aid and otherwise wanted to be bothered with Syria as little as possible. For Turkey, Syria is currently only a domestic political problem, it is an election campaign issue and is treated as such. Not only the opposition, but also the government knows that millions of refugees will not return to Syria in the foreseeable future and that Turkey is facing completely different, much more serious challenges. Then there is Iran, whose regime is in the deepest crisis in the history of the Islamic Republic and which has just announced tax hikes of up to 60 percent in order to plug at least some of the gaping holes in the budget. Assad is staying in power, and that should also be known in Ankara because Russia and Iran are giving him massive support. Should aid from one of the two countries cease or be even more severely cut – at the beginning of the year, for example, Tehran stopped supplying cheap fuel that is vital for Syria – the end of Assad would only be a matter of time. For all these reasons, it would not be surprising if Turkey persisted with its diplomatic offensive for a few more months and then, at least if the AKP were to win, came to the conclusion that the negotiations with Damascus had been fruitless.