Political radio silence has prevailed between Turkey and Syria since 2011. The Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the fiercest enemies of the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan is now sending signals of relaxation to Damascus.
For more than ten years Erdogan worked towards the overthrow of the Syrian autocrat Assad. "Give up power before more blood is spilled," Erdogan appealed to Assad in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Otherwise he faces a fate like Mussolini, Ceausescu or Gaddafi, Erdogan warned. Now it sounds very different: "Whether Assad resigns or not is not an issue for us," Erdogan told journalists. A decade after he abruptly cut all ties to Damascus, Erdogan is now declaring that diplomatic contacts between two countries should never be broken, but that dialogue should be sought.
There are already contacts: The heads of the secret services of Turkey and Syria, Hakan Fidan and Ali Mamlouk, are said to have met several times recently. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has now also reported on a conversation he had with his Syrian colleague Faisal al-Miqdad last November. Cavusoglu said that one must work towards "reconciling the opposition and the regime in Syria, otherwise there will be no lasting peace."

After years of radio silence – Turkey is making contacts with Syria again

For the Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Erdogan's shift in Syria policy is a betrayal. So far, Turkey has supported the FSA with money and weapons in its fight against the Assad regime. At the same time, the FSA helped Turkey to keep in check the militias of the Kurdish People's Defense Units YPG, which want to create a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria on the border with Turkey.
Erdogan's change of course in Syria policy is not voluntary. Since spring, the Turkish head of state has repeatedly announced an upcoming new military operation against the Kurdish militias in northern Syria, where Turkey has occupied large areas of the country since 2016. But the USA warned urgently against an invasion. Russia, Assad's most important protective power, also signaled an objection. Without the agreement of Russia, which has air sovereignty over Syria, a Turkish military operation would be impossible. At a meeting in Sochi three weeks ago, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin is said to have urgently warned Erdogan against an invasion of northern Syria and urged him to come to terms with Assad.

Erdogan's swing probably mainly because of the pressure from Russia

In the meantime, Erdogan has also recognized that thanks to Russian support, Assad is firmly in the saddle. He can no longer get past the Syrian ruler. This does not only apply to the development in the Kurdish region in northern Syria. At the same time, reconciliation in Syria would pave the way for the return of millions of Syrian civil war refugees from Turkey. Once welcomed as “guests,” migrants are increasingly unpopular. Many Turks see them as unwelcome competitors in the competition for jobs, housing and social benefits. A few months before the next parliamentary and presidential elections, it would be a major domestic political success for Erdogan if he could negotiate the repatriation of refugees with the Assad regime.

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However, the way there is still difficult. Assad is calling for Turkey's complete military withdrawal from northern Syria as a precondition for normalizing relations. So far, Erdogan has not been willing to do this because the Kurdish militias would benefit from it - unless the regime in Damascus were willing and able to assume military control of the border region.
The chances of a rapprochement could be seen in as little as three weeks. In mid-September, the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SOC) will take place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Erdogan and Assad are invited as observers. There may be a conversation.
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Gerd Höhler/rnd/Translation: Geostrategic Studies Team