The issue of Syrian refugees is one of the leading problems in Turkey, according to supporters of every major political party in the country. The Turkish government, which faces a tight election prospect within a year, has been making statements to show that they are aware of the problem and are handling the issue of refugees. To this end, the negotiations between Turkey and Syria that have been underway for quite some time have apparently reached a certain point of development. In this vein, during the last month, several high-ranking Turkish officials have been arguing about the need to normalize the relations between Turkey and Syria after years of bloodshed. President Erdoğan was the last one who joined the chorus. “Governments should never cut out political dialogue or diplomacy. We need to take further steps with Syria. There should always be a dialogue. This way, we can spoil several plans on our region," Erdogan said on August 18.
Syria also expressed a political will to engage with Turkey, though not as loudly as Turkish officials because of its several misgivings. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad, who paid a visit to Tehran on July 20, just one day after the trilateral meeting between Erdoğan, Putin and Khamenei where a Turkish incursion on Syria was high on the agenda, employed a softer tone towards Turkey than usual in the press conference following the meeting with his Iranian counterpart. “It would benefit neither Turkey nor anyone else to penetrate Syrian borders. This will create another kind of conflict between the Syrian and Turkish governments, and it will affect the relationship between the brotherly and friendly peoples of Turkey and Syria.” said al-Meqdad. Referring to Syria’s relations with Turkey before the outbreak of the civil war, al-Meqdad continued, “the Turkish economy flourished, as the Syrian economy witnessed a similar rebound. The blatant interference in Syria’s internal affairs and the penetration of hundreds of thousands of terrorists into Syria put an end to these relations and hindered their development. This is what the US and Israel desire.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu acknowledged on August 10 that he met his Syrian counterpart Faisal al-Meqdad in October 2021 on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Belgrade, adding that talks between the intelligence agencies of the two countries have resumed once again and that they are discussing essential issues. It has been reported that the Syrian and Turkish heads of intelligence, Ali Mamlouk and Hakan Fidan, had met more than once for “security coordination”.
We do not know for sure how the talks between Turkey and Syria are evolving. Yet, it seems that the negotiations are developing to the satisfaction of both parties, based upon the reporting of the pro-government daily Türkiye, which published the negotiating parties’ priorities on August 17. It should be noted here that pro-government media in Turkey cannot publish anything on such a sensitive issue without securing the government’s approval first. According to Türkiye daily, Damascus required the return of Idlib to its control, the takeover of some border gates on the Turkish border currently under the control of the opposition, the opening of a trade corridor between Turkey and Damascus, complete control of the M-4 highway that crosses through Northern Syria from west to east, and Turkey’s support in lifting western sanctions against Damascus. For Turkey, the priorities are first eliminating the YPG from Syria, and second a political and military compromise between Damascus and the opposition in order to enable the return of the refugees in Syria.
Ankara’s public change of stance in seeking help from the Damascus government in its fight against the YPG has gained momentum after the refusal of Iran’s Khamenei on July 19 in Tehran and the denial of Russia’s Putin to allow Turkey’s incursion to Syria at the Sochi talks on August 5, where Erdoğan argued the necessity to establish a 30-kilometer-deep security zone south of its border within Syria against the perceived threats of terrorist attacks. The eastern side of the Euphrates River is under the sphere of influence of the USA, which categorically denies a military operation in its territory. For a campaign on the western side of the Euphrates River, where launching a military campaign is theoretically possible, Erdoğan needed the nod of Russia and Iran. Instead, these two countries recommended that Turkey has to engage politically with Damascus to address its concerns about the YPG. The talks purportedly include a revision of the Adana agreement to enable Turkey to pursue military operations within 30 kilometers in Syria instead of 5 kilometers.
Resettlement of the Syrian refugees is the second key demand of the Turkish negotiators in the context of the growing discontent of Turkish voters on the eve of the presidential elections in 2023. The Turkish government plans to “voluntarily” repatriate one million refugees in the near future by building them housing and local infrastructure in the proposed Turkish security zone in northern Syria. The Syrian government deeply objects to this plan, accusing Turkey that this is a permanent colonialization and Turkification project of northern Syria that would further upset the demographic balance in the region to the detriment of the Kurds and other minorities. Indeed, as an indication of Turkey’s perception of northern Syria as one of its provinces, the ceremony for the completion of a huge housing project in Idlib was inaugurated none other than Turkey’s Minister of Interior Affairs, Süleyman Soylu, who promised more housing projects for the resettlement of Syrians in the region. Turkey similarly incorporated northern Syria under its administrative organization. It extended its national bureaucracy to Syria by posting local governors, police, doctors and teachers, etc., as if it were a Turkish province populated by Arabic-speaking citizens. According to the talks underway, Turkey also proposed to Damascus the repatriation of Syrian refugees to Hums, Damascus and Aleppo as a trial and then to expand their settlements to other parts of the country following a political compromise.
To conclude, Turkey’s endeavors to normalize its relations with Syria fits into the larger pattern of Turkey’s current policy towards the Middle East, where it intends to mend the fences with its foes, including Israel, Egypt and the Gulf countries. Talks between Turkey and Syria are furthermore highly recommended, if not imposed, by Syria’s pre-eminent security partners, namely Russia and Iran. Erdoğan’s need to secure a win against the YPG and the resettlement of the Syrian refugees to alleviate the pressure in domestic politics are also critical factors in Turkey’s change of heart towards Damascus. The talks would undoubtedly provide some fruits in the near term, but they are just the beginning of a long, painful process.