Turkey’s Rapprochement with Syrian Regime: Implications for Syrian Opposition

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EPC|7 Sep 2022

Syrian opposition groups, be they political or armed, may soon find themselves in a precarious and potentially foreboding situation as a result of Turkey’s growing policy reversals in Syria. Seeking electoral and economic gains, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be prioritizing reengagement with the Syrian regime and pursuing a reset of their relationship from one of conflict to one of peace and cooperation. The risks facing Syrian opposition groups as a result of this policy shift stem from Turkey’s prominent role in the Syrian conflict over the past few years and Ankara’s role as the primary political and military sponsor of the Syrian opposition.

This paper examines the unfolding reset in Turkey’s relationship with the Syrian regime, as well as options available to the Syrian opposition.

New Strategic Thinking

The reversal in Turkish policy toward Syria is a byproduct of larger geopolitical shifts brought on, primarily, by the conflict in Ukraine. Also, with the United States increasingly siding with Greece and the Syrian Kurds in their disputes with Turkey, there are signs that the relationship between Turkey and the United States may undergo strategic turns.

Therefore, Turkey’s relationship with Russia appears as a strategic lever to help Ankara counterweigh Western attempts to undermine its role in the region due to dissatisfaction with Ankara’s domestic and foreign policies. Also, the 2023 Turkish general elections and the fight to bring an end to Erdogan’s and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule appear to be major factors in the shift in Turkish policy. This is why Ankara is working to improve ties with Russia and try new tactics in Syria, such as mending fences with the Assad regime and pulling out of Syria’s restive Idlib province and the country’s northeastern region. But if Ankara continues on its current course of action, its strategic capital will be expended at a higher cost than any benefits it might receive.

In addition, given the West’s persistent efforts to make up for Russian energy supplies, Turkey looks forward to becoming a major hub for shipping gas to Europe. This explains Erdogan’s haste to patch up his nation’s ties with Israel and his overtures to make amends with Egypt. Last but not least, Turkey hopes to have a key role in Syria’s prospective reconstruction process.

Although Iran appears to be outside the Russian-Turkish agreement on Syria, it is not entirely unlikely that Turkish decision-makers have taken into account the fact that the US and Iran are reportedly one step away from concluding a new agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which would revitalize Iran’s economy and open the doors to its oil exports. As a result, Turkey wanted to act ahead of time by calming the conflict with Iran in Syria and building mutual trust.

In light of these presumed strategic interests and considerations, the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, appears to be merely a sideshow for Turkey as it tries to shed the heavy load that has hamstrung its international standing. In other words, Turkey is actively looking for new ways to alleviate the burden of the Syrian crisis and its costs, which it is no longer able to bear.

Removing Stumbling Blocks

The journey to reconciliation between Turkey and the Syrian regime, according to all available evidence, has already begun, pushed in large part by Russia. Moscow is working on a framework to resolve issues between Syria and Turkey, which have been lingering for more than a decade. Erdogan’s government, on the other hand, appears to be caving in to the deep state in Ankara by pursuing and prioritizing political pragmatism over ideologies and principles.

This does not, however, imply that a reset in the relationship between Turkey and the Syrian regime is readily available. Ankara has developed a complicated relationship with the Syrian opposition over the past few years, which is difficult to dissolve overnight. The perception that Ankara has the upper hand over the Syrian opposition does not mean that it actually does for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • There are still foreign actors with influence over the Syrian opposition. Qatar, for example, has extensive ties to both armed and political opposition factions in Syria. Saudi Arabia also has relations with the Syrian opposition, especially the “Negotiation Committee” whose formation was overseen by Riyadh. This is in addition to the factions that have been supported by Riyadh until recently, such as the Army of Islam, whose members are located in Afrin. Therefore, Turkey, which wants to reap the most benefits from working with Russia and Iran in Syria, should not expect Qatar and Saudi Arabia to automatically cede their sway over the Syrian opposition.
  • Despite Turkey’s efforts to weaken the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood within the restructured National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, it is hard to imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood would accept its complete exclusion from the arrangements for a political solution in Syria or fully acquiesce to Turkish desires. When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke of the need for reconciliation between the opposition and the regime, the “Syrian Islamic Council” criticized his remarks. Faylaq al-Sham and some Ahrar al-Sham brigades are just two of the many “National Opposition Army” factions that are under the Brotherhood’s command.
  • There are extremist groups that are difficult for Ankara to incorporate into any political solution or to be dismantled, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Ansar al-Tawhid and the Guardians of Religion. Although there are reportedly channels of communication between Ankara and these organizations, this does not give Ankara any control over the future of these groups.
  • It is unlikely that the opposition will accept to join the settlement that Turkey and Russia are trying to push without clear and specific commitments and a regional political cover for issues related to a potential political and constitutional change in Syria.

If this happens, Turkey will have no choice but to take the following measures to shape events in northern Syria to its liking:

  • Even if only on the surface, Ankara needs to find common ground between the demands of powerful foreign actors and the demands of the various opposition groups. A way to accomplish this would be to restructure the opposition coalition and the armed forces to make them incorporate the remaining independent groups.
  • Ankara will try to head off any out-of-control developments in northern Syria by containing key armed factions and possibly eliminating those it suspects of opposing its new agenda.

Erdogan’s administration, however, seems to be pressed hard by time as well as other political factors that won’t allow it to wait for very long for two crucial reasons:

First, the longer it takes to improve relations with the Syrian regime, the more electoral support Erdogan’s government risks to lose. Considering how prominently the refugee resettlement issue has figured into political discourse in Turkey in the run-up to the upcoming general elections, any such delay would be highly consequential. If Erdogan’s government fails to find a solution to the refugee crisis, Turkish voters will have no choice but to throw their weight behind opposition parties, which have always claimed to have surefire solutions.

Second: Russia and Turkey have agreed to work toward a diplomatic resolution that prioritizes the implementation of a political change over the outright removal of Bashar al-Assad. This would entail Turkey bringing the opposition to the table and Russia bringing the regime for serious negotiations, provided that the process should not take too long.

Syrian Opposition Options

Turkey has been a major backer of the Syrian opposition for several years, and as a result, the opposition has become a captive of Turkish wants and needs. Not only has Turkey used Syrian opposition groups in places like Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, but it has also negotiated with Russia and Iran on their behalf and mobilized them at various points.

The majority of National Coalition members reside in Turkey, and the opposition’s political and media institutions are headquartered in Istanbul and Gaziantep. Thus, Turkey has substantial influence over the Syrian opposition. In addition to receiving logistical and financial support from Turkey, the armed factions of the Syrian opposition have developed direct ties to the Turkish military and security establishment. Because of this, the Syrian opposition has fewer and more difficult choices to make:

First: Submitting to the Turkish agenda and attempting to improve the opposition’s standing in any political solution to Syria’s crisis. The opposition will be pushed toward this course of action by two main factors: First, many believe that it is in Ankara’s best interests for the opposition to become politically dominant in Syria, as this would allow Turkey to recoup some of the enormous investment it has made in the Syrian crisis. A second contributing factor is that the Syrian opposition has few other major allies and supporters besides Turkey. So, out of political pragmatism, the Syrian opposition must deal with what is conceivable now. Considering the power dynamic and a shifting international and regional landscape, it is better to get something than nothing, especially since any rupture with Turkey will render the Syrian opposition an easy target for the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

This explains why, despite pressure from the opposition’s grassroots bases and accusations of caving in to Turkey, none of the official structures of the Syrian opposition—whether sovereign ones like the “National Coalition” or executive or technical bodies like the Interim Government or the Negotiating Committee and the Constitutional Committee—showed any reaction to the Turkish moves.

Second: Declaring the Syrian northwestern Idlib province independent of Turkish control and delegating responsibility to the opposition. This entails reorganizing the militant groups to incorporate radical factions, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, into mainstream opposition groups. This option would be acceptable to local and foreign actors for two reasons, despite the fact that it entails real challenges, such as the possibility that the strongest faction, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, might control the independent Idlib entity. First, many of the northern Syrian population (roughly 4 million people) are wanted by the Syrian security services. No amount of assurances will make them accept the Turkish agenda and they will be facing the risk of the regime’s retribution. Second, this entity may receive backing from regional and foreign actors, particularly from Qatar and the United States. As evidenced by recent diplomatic moves and meetings with the Syrian opposition and its foreign backers, the United States is aware of the magnitude of the pressure exerted by Turkey on the Syrian opposition and would be keen to open up new avenues for it. In this case, the Syrian political opposition could relocate its institutions to Europe, where a large number of Syrian refugees reside, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and France.

Third: The opposition’s third option is to join forces with the Kurds in northern Syria and form a joint political and military command. This would give Arab and Kurdish opposition groups control over roughly 40 percent of Syria’s territory and nearly half of its population. In spite of the animosities that developed between Arabs and Kurds during the previous war years, they may be compelled to form such an alliance if the alternative is their political demise. Washington will also support this option, especially given its efforts in the past to unite the Kurds and to include them in the Syrian Negotiating Committee, as well as its call for the revitalization of trade between Kurdish- and opposition-controlled regions.

Fourth: The Syrian opposition’s final resort is to hope for the failure of attempts at dialogue between Damascus and Ankara in case Turkey refuses to concede to the regime’s demands or to leave Syria empty-handed. Nonetheless, the opposition does not have much time to wait for its wishes to come true, and thus it will have to make quick decisions in order to survive and possibly cope with internal and external pressures.

Syrian Opposition’s Stance on Rapprochement Between Turkey and the Assad Regime: Possible Scenarios

First: The Syrian opposition, under this scenario, would have to accept the new Turkish agenda in the hopes of reaping any political benefits that Turkey might stand to gain from its negotiations with Russia. After surrendering all leverage to Ankara, the opposition has few options left and few bargaining chips, increasing the likelihood that this scenario will play out.

In this case, the southern Syria model appears to be the most feasible option. A special corps of armed factions, similar to the Eighth Corps in Daraa, may be formed in Idlib, integrating “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” into its structures, provided it is placed under joint Russian-Turkish supervision and under the sovereignty of the Syrian regime.

The Syrian opposition’s lack of access to alternatives to Turkish military and political cover, as well as Turkey’s haste to find a solution that ends its involvement in the Syrian crisis and its ramifications, are the two main factors at play in this scenario.  The most significant risk associated with this scenario is the possibility of large numbers of Syrians living in Idlib and in camps along the Turkish border strip crossing into Turkish territory. In addition to this, there will be the risk of reprisal attacks against Turkish forces deployed in northern Syria and Idlib. The Turkish government must be aware of these dangers, so it must approach this situation with caution.

Second: The second scenario assumes that the Syrian opposition might reject the new Turkish policy, which could harm large groups in Idlib and northern Syria. In addition to the extremist organizations that are inevitably expected to refuse to participate in Turkish plans, there are powerful commanders in the Syrian National Army who categorically refuse to submit to the Syrian regime, as well as public opinion in northern Syria that refuses to return to the regime’s rule.

A civil war might likely break out between the parties who would succumb to Turkey’s new policy and those who would reject its project under this scenario, but the size of the “local” parties that are expected to engage in this potential infighting and the size of the splits that are likely to occur within the body of the Turkish-aligned “National Army” are unknown. The fact that there are regional, international, and local actors who may work to make this scenario a reality gives it plausibility. Such parties affected by Turkey’s openness towards Russia and the Assad regime, such as the United States and the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, would find it in their best interests to undermine these plans. They would do so to ensure that regime forces will remain unable to exert pressure east of the Euphrates or bring in thousands of “settlement” fighters from Idlib to accomplish this mission. In fact, Washington took a diplomatic approach and convened a meeting of the envoys of the so-called “Friends of Syria,” who issued a statement urging the Syrian regime to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 (which calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria) and create conditions safe enough for the return of war refugees.

This is the most plausible scenario, given that the conditions for a settlement have not yet been met and a settlement would be detrimental to the interests of foreign actors who have the ability to alter the course of events in northern Syria.

Third: This scenario presupposes that both sides will not budge on their demands, rendering Turkey’s efforts to engage with the Syrian regime fruitless. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that Turkey will soon withdraw all of its troops from Syria. The Syrian regime, on the other hand, has no reason to help Erdogan’s political standing in the upcoming Turkish elections by handing him a political victory.

There is little chance that Turkey will be able to quickly sever all ties and relations with the parts of Syria that it currently controls. Any immediate acceding to the Syrian regime’s demands, such as handing over all of the Idlib province and the border crossings, will lead to violent unrest for which Turkey may pay a high price.

Conclusions

Now that Syria is no longer a priority for the international community, Erdogan’s government sees an opportunity to make up for the huge cost incurred there through acceptable Russian offers. Serious consequences for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are on the horizon if the Syrian crisis is not resolved soon. The Syrian opposition, both armed and political, is currently in an existential bind because its main ally, Turkey, has demanded that it accept any possible settlement proposal at this point.

As things stand, the Syrian opposition knows it cannot make significant progress and risks losing international support. The Syrians, who have put a lot of faith in it, will be disappointed by the opposition’s strategy. It also means giving in to Iran and Hezbollah’s relentless efforts to alter Syria’s population composition. As a result, the Syrian opposition’s only remaining choices appear to be of a suicidal nature. Accepting the Turkish demands means the opposition will die and may even explode from within, while rejecting them will lead it down uncharted roads.

The structure of the Syrian opposition, which already suffers from heterogeneity and a lack of a unified leadership, is likely to be violently shaken up in the upcoming stage. In addition, it is possible that international action will be taken to torpedo the Turkish-Syrian reconciliation effort.

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