Turkey signals potential rapprochement with Syria's Assad
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey is increasingly signaling its readiness for a thawing of relations with the Assad regime in Syria.
Why it matters: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, were at one point close allies, but the two leaders have not been in contact since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
- Erdoğan and Assad have traded harsh accusations — with the Turkish leader stressing that the Syrian president must be ousted.
- But Ankara, which has backed the Syrian rebels, has recently shifted from seeking Assad's removal to prioritizing domestic security by halting the advancement of Kurdish fighters along Turkey’s borders with Syria.
Driving the news: In a call with Vladimir Putin last week, Erdoğan proposed the Russian president hold a trilateral summit between the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Syria to discuss joint counterterrorism.
- “First, our intelligence organizations should come together, then our defense ministers and then our foreign ministers should meet," Erdoğan told reporters.
- Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, has met with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus several times this year to try to arrange a meeting between the foreign ministers.
- The new Turkish position was welcomed by Russia, which has already been preparing the path for a possible meeting between the two leaders.
Between the lines: Any reconciliation between Turkey and Syria is expected to happen gradually.
- Damascus has so far been cautious about re-engaging with Ankara, especially ahead of Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled for June.
State of play: Damascus considers Turkey, which has a military presence in large swaths of northern Syria, to be an occupying power.
- Erdoğan for months has vowed to begin a new ground incursion into the region against Kurdish groups. Turkey recently launched drone, air and artillery strikes across the border into Syria.
- Ankara views the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, a militant group designated as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Turkey.
- Ankara and Damascus are on the same page about ending the presence of the YPG and U.S. troops, who have backed the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria.
The big picture: A Turkish-Syrian rapprochement would require a detailed plan for the repatriation of more than 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
- The prospect of sending Syrian refugees back to their homeland would boost Erdoğan's chances for re-election next year.
- Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey's main opposition party, known as the Republican People’s Party, said in February that if he were elected, Turkey would take normalization steps with the Assad regime and send all the Syrian refugees back to their home country.
What they’re saying: Former U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, who visited Ankara in early December, said in an interview on the Turkish channel NTV that Turkey won’t get anything from meeting the Syrian regime.
- But Erdoğan recently emphasized that Turkey could “get things on track with Syria. There can be no resentment in politics."
What to watch: It's still unclear to what extent Ankara end its support to Syrian opposition forces fighting Damascus and whether Ankara will accept Assad’s demand to withdraw its troops from Syria.