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Why Erdogan needs Assad more than ever

The Turkish president is running out of time before the next election to solve the Gordian knot that is Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greets Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Damascus in April 2008 (SANA/AFP)

Turkey’s latest air strikes on Syrian border posts and Kurdish positions point to another round of deadly tit-for-tat between Damascus and Ankara. Turkey’s real targets are the American-backed Kurdish forces, but after countless attempts to solve the problem of northeastern Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erodgan must realise he cannot bomb his way out of this predicament.

As Erdogan slowly but surely pulls a U-turn on all his Arab Spring policies, including recent Saudi and Emirati rapprochements, the time has arrived for a Syrian reset. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, shows that Ankara has embarked on the road back to Damascus.

In Syria, the divisions are so vast that every bit of leverage that Turkey ever had is diminishing by the day

While this road is long and filled with Russian and Iranian potholes, Erdogan - facing an upcoming election that will be dominated by issues of terrorism, demographics and Syrian refugees - has no choice but to attempt to fix ties with Damascus. But this reconciliation may have more in common with the practicalities of the 1998 Adana Agreement than with the chumminess of more recent years, when Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad holidayed on the Mediterranean.

While Erdogan has skilfully manoeuvred between Nato and Russia over Ukraine, he has repeatedly hit a brick wall with his attempted balancing act in Syria. The long-since announced, but still delayed, Turkish military offensive in northern Syria has begun to sound like the boy who cried wolf.

The primary reason is that with northwestern Syria functioning as Turkey’s backyard, any fresh assault on the northeast would create problems for Turkish proxies elsewhere. Erdogan thus has no choice but to cut a face-saving deal with Assad. 

Divide and conquer

With regards to Ukraine, Turkey has benefited from the war, with Erdogan deftly playing his usual divide-and-conquer diplomacy between Russia and Nato. But in Syria, the divisions are so vast that every bit of leverage that Turkey ever had is diminishing by the day. 

Turkey cannot claim to be fighting the Islamic State, as Washington views Turkey’s archenemy, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as the main protagonists in the fight against militant terrorism. Nor can Ankara claim to act as an interlocutor with Damascus in the same way it did more than a decade ago.

Turkish tanks are seen west of the Turkish-Syrian border town of Karkamis in September 2016 (AFP)
Turkish tanks are seen west of the Turkish-Syrian border town of Karkamis in September 2016 (AFP)

Turkey cannot balance the Russians out either; despite Ankara’s multi-layered relationship with Moscow, Putin would not abandon Assad in favour of Erdogan as Syria has been the strategic Arab ally for Moscow for more than five decades and currently has served as the main pivot to Russia's return to the Middle East. And after Erdogan’s latest foray back into Saudi and Emirati good graces, he cannot claim to support political Islam groups, causing him to lose some of the headway he made in 2011.

In Syria, despite the Ukraine distraction, the Russians have been active, firing at Israeli aircraft regularly to up the ante against any direct threat to Damascus. At the Tehran summit last month, Erdogan was warned by both Russia and Iran against a new Syria invasion. An Iranian-Turkish intelligence war is expanding, and neither Ankara nor Tehran would want it to extend to northern Syria.

At the same time, the Russians have not lost sight of the impacts of Turkish drones on Russian forces in Ukraine, in addition to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. All of this means that the Turkish military must think very carefully before launching any fresh operations.

Public anger

While Erdogan was unable to unite the Syrian opposition to take on the government in Damascus, his Syria policy over the past decade has ironically united his domestic political opponents, with opposition leaders arguing against Turkish operations in Syria. This has played into domestic unease and friction over a perceived Syrian takeover of Turkey.

Xenophobic violence and blame for Turkey’s economic woes has plagued Syrian refugees in the country, but there is also public anger about financially unaccountable Turkish military operations in Syria with no end result. Opposition parties have campaigned on resetting relations with Damascus and returning Syrian refugees to their home country. Erdogan is now cornered on the issue of Syria.

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Considering Erdogan’s historic grievance with US President Joe Biden over Turkey’s alleged support for terrorist groups, Ankara has little leverage in Washington. And Brett McGurk, the longtime Middle East Caesar in Washington, also has a soft spot for the Syrian Kurds.

With Russia and the US both seeming to back Kurdish rapprochement with Damascus as the most palatable option, Ankara has no choice but to also reconcile with Damascus. The Syrian opposition can rest easy knowing that it is virtually impossible for Erdogan to completely abandon them in Idlib, but as the Turkish president has shown through his renewed contacts with previously scorned Middle Eastern leaders, there’s no reason he can’t also mend fences with Assad.

Despite the nationalistic rhetoric and recent air strikes, Erdogan is running out of time before the next election to solve the Gordian knot that is Syria. For his part, Assad can wait this out - because after Turkey once again fails to bomb its way out of the northeastern problem, Erdogan will need Assad far more than the reverse.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Kamal Alam specialises in contemporary military history of the Middle East. He was a Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute from 2015 to 2019. Currently, he is a Fellow at The Institute for Statecraft and lectures at several military staff colleges across the Middle East.