The Illusions of Process in Syria

10 January 2023 16:25:00 - Last updated: 16 January 2023 14:40:19

There were big demonstrations last Friday in parts of Syria rejecting a rapprochement between Bashar al-Assad’s government and Türkiye. Maybe I am too cynical, and I must acknowledge my many mistakes when I worked on the Syria file ten years ago but my opinion in short is: this is a political game between Turks in an election year and it also is President Erdogan’s effort to gain a little more advantage for vital Turkish interests in northern Syria against Damascus, Moscow and against Rojova.

First, the election politics in Ankara are difficult for Erdogan. Among the issues in Turkish politics, a new start with Syria is popular among the Turkish people. According to a December Turkish opinion survey by Metropoll Pulse, 59 percent of Turks want Erdogan to talk to Assad while only 29 percent opposed that.

The value of a meeting with Assad and the pledge to Turkish voters that Erdogan will launch a new policy towards Syria and the challenge of refugees is obvious. Erdogan needs to show at least a process is beginning. Remember the word: process. There are some new bilateral working groups after the meeting of the Russian, Turkish and Syrian defense ministers. Probably the three foreign ministers will meet. Maybe the three presidents will meet before the elections or Erdogan will pledge that he will meet Assad. He can claim there is a process.

Meanwhile, Assad doesn’t like or trust Erdogan. The Russians are exerting pressure on Assad to accept a process, and he will demand a reward from them. The Emirati Foreign Minister visited Damascus again and perhaps discussed ways to convince Assad to accept a meeting. It reminds me of the heavy American focus on the process during the Bush father and Clinton administrations thirty years ago as they pursued peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We saw many working groups, aid packages and meetings with Israelis and Palestinians.

Working groups and meetings result in great photographs but ask the Palestinians what that process produced. Only concessions, compromises and hard choices bring lasting rapprochement. Neither Damascus or Ankara offer any real concessions or compromises.

Turkish Defense Minister Akar’s January 6 remarks to the Turkish media that Türkiye will not accept a new wave of refugees from Syria had three clear messages. First, he was telling Damascus and Moscow that Ankara will not accept a new Russian-Syrian offensive to seize Idlib and north Aleppo. He had a second message that was very timely: in the United Nations in New York this week, Moscow should not impede humanitarian aid deliveries from Türkiye to Idlib and northern Aleppo that would provoke thousands of desperate Syrian displaced people to try to enter Türkiye to escape starvation. Akar’s third message was more implicit but also clear: the Turkish occupation in northern Syria will remain until there is an arrangement that Ankara – and the displaced - accept. And for real political (and economic) reasons, Assad won’t welcome the refugees in any foreseeable future.

Akar also said on January 6 that Türkiye will continue to fight against terrorists. He pointed directly at the autonomous region in northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its People's Protection Units YPG militia connected to Türkiye’s number one enemy, the Kurdish Workers Party.

Akar also stated that Assad’s forces cannot destroy the autonomous administration. Assad’s Syria is weak economically and militarily and this fact will not change. Akar thus acknowledged the limited value to Ankara of rapprochement with Damascus. Because domestic politics in Türkiye demand a process, Akar in Moscow accepted new joint patrols with Russians and Syrians along the shared border. Joint patrols perhaps will constrain the PYD’s autonomous administration a little but they will not eliminate it.

At the most we might see cooperation between Ankara, Moscow and Damascus for weak Syrian and Russian forces to seize more control of Manbij and Tal Rafaat in north-central Syria. However, for the future as far as we can see, the autonomous administration and therefore the Turkish occupation will stay regardless of Assad’s rejection.

Since the autonomous administration, the YPG and its SDF will stay, Washington’s response has been mild. The American envoy for Syria repeated last week that Washington will offer nothing to Syria, and the Americans have nothing to offer Türkiye on the Syria issue. But imagine if new Turkish and Syrian embassies opened in the two capitals. Of course, Washington would object and then? The YPG and its SDF would still welcome American cooperation, economic aid and protection, and Washington would continue with SDF partners to fight little ISIS remnants that appear in eastern Syria.

That American mission doesn’t resolve the ISIS problem in Syria or the Syrian conflict. Washington knows this, but domestic politics in America also demand a process in Syria.