There has been much media speculation about a rapprochement between Syria and Türkiye. Russian officials, including the Kremlin spokesman and the Russian presidential envoy to Syria last Friday said Moscow is trying to arrange a meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Assad. I don’t expect to see a photograph soon with a somber Erdogan shaking hands with a smiling Assad in Moscow.
Erdogan and Assad agree on only one issue: both reject real autonomy for the Syrian Kurdish regions. At the November meeting about Syria in Astana, the Turks again agreed with Assad’s allies, the Iranians and the Russians, to resist “further separatist plans aimed at undermining Syrian territorial integrity and threatening the national security of neighboring countries.”
The message is aimed at the Syrian Kurdish faction PYD and its “People Protection” militia, connected to the PKK, who manage the autonomous administration in northeast Syria under an American military umbrella.
The Americans in the short-term will stay unless the PYD and its militia tell them to go. The PYD so far has succeeded in balancing between Washington on one side and Damascus and Moscow on the other to deter a full-scale Turkish invasion.
Russia has spoken about returning to the 1998 Adana agreement that ejected the PKK from Syria but achieving that return is not in sight.
Russia and Syria so far refuse to fight the PYD and its militia. The autonomous administration survives.
In addition, it is almost 2023, and restoring an old agreement from 1998, even if it were possible, will not enable a Türkiye-Syria rapprochement. Both sides have deeper grievances than they did 25 years ago. Ankara has to doubt that the Syrian government can actually control all of northern Syria. Damascus cannot even control Daraa, an hour’s drive from Damascus. How will it control Qamishli, 400 miles from the capital?
In addition, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu on November 8 conditioned a resumption of political talks on ensuring the safe return of Syrian refugees from Türkiye back to Syria. Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan emphasized this refugee issue when he met Syrian intelligence official Ali Mamlouk in September. Fidan stayed two days in Damascus. That is a long visit, but Turkish statements indicate no big progress on bilateral relations.
It is worth remembering that while the Damascus government has officially welcomed the return of refugees, Assad also said in 2017 that Syria is stronger and more homogenous after their departure. He doesn’t want all those refugees back. Where would they live? Where would they find jobs? How would they find food? How could the Assad government trust all of them?
Damascus won’t trust them and it won’t issue guarantees about their safety to Fidan, Cavusoglu and Erdogan. And Assad won’t accept safe zones in Syria for refugees under Turkish control. He wants the Turk soldiers out of Syria. There are many stories of Syrians who formally reconciled with the government who later died under torture in detention. The 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye know this. Ankara does not want nightly television around the world to show screaming refugees forced at gunpoint to cross back over the border into Syria.
The refugee issue is huge but there are other difficult issues. What to do about the displaced Syrians near the Turkish border and their safety? What will Türkiye do with thousands of Syrian rebel fighters that it has sponsored? Where will they go? It is impossible to imagine that all the opposition fighters will voluntarily surrender to the mercy of the Syrian security forces. Ankara wants to avoid the bitterness and fighting that will follow its abandoning the Syrian opposition.
Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu in August said the Syrian opposition must reconcile with Assad. And in November he said that progress must be made on these issues before talks between Ankara and Damascus can move from the level of intelligence directors to a “political level.” Ankara wants the Syrian opposition and Assad to accept compromises.
Assad’s father Hafez was known for his patience and the son has learned it too. Media reports suggest Bashar is in no hurry to meet and give a political boost to his old friend Erdogan.
Assad’s government has never made political compromises in this civil war. Instead, he waits and watches strong Turkish opposition attacks on Erdogan’s entire Syria policy. Those opposition parties call for a fast political opening with Damascus. Assad probably hopes that if the Turkish opposition wins in the June elections, he can get an agreement to eliminate Turkish support for rebel fighters more easily and thereby gain a little more leverage with the PYD.
Therefore, the Syrian president politely declines Putin’s invitation to come for a photograph with Erdogan. We should remember that even leaders of weak states sometimes can say, “no, thank you.”