In the past month, Turkey has moved to normalized relations with Israel, Russia, and now — according to comments made by Turkey’s new prime minister, as well as a Foreign Policy report published Wednesday — with the Assad regime in Syria.
“It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbours that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Wednesday.
“We normalized relations with Russia and Israel,” Yildirim added. “I’m sure we will normalize our relations with Syria as well. For the fight against terrorism to succeed, stability needs to return to Syria and Iraq.
A new report published the same day in Foreign Policy claims that two members of Turkey’s Homeland Party — a nationalist movement “with an anti-Western and anti-American platform” — have been meeting with Syrian government officials over the past year to discuss “how to prepare the ground for Turkey and Syria to resume diplomatic relations and political cooperation.”
They say they have been relaying the outcomes of these meetings, moreover, to high-ranking Turkish military and Foreign Ministry officials.
Still, experts are divided over how plausible it is that Ankara — which has been one of the staunchest opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since breaking diplomatic ties with his government in 2011 — would attempt to mend its relationship with a leader it has been actively working against for the last five years.
Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said that rumours of a “reset” with Syria are entirely plausible.
“Turkey is going through a foreign policy reset,” Erdemir told Business Insider on Wednesday. “Following change of course vis-a-vis Israel, Russia, and the UAE, the next steps will be Syria and Egypt.”
‘It would be unprecedented’
Still, others are sceptical that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would undertake such a “seismic” foreign-policy shift at such a politically sensitive moment — even if, as the Foreign Policy report and comments from Turkish officials suggest, the Turkish leader is looking for allies against its Kurdish foes.
“The consensus is that Turkey is reevaluating its approach to Assad, in order to prevent [Kurdish] PYD independence, or democratic autonomy,” Aaron Stein, an expert on Turkey and Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Business Insider on Wednesday.
“There may indeed been a strain of thinking in the Turkish government that thinks this way, but there is also a pervasive feeling that the country is winning its own war against the [Kurdish] PKK, and that Rojava can be coerced in the longer term,” Stein added, referring to the Kurds’ self-declared autonomos region of Rojava in northern Syria.
Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum and analyst of Middle Eastern politics and US foreign policy, largely agreed.
“No doubt there are nationalist politicians and groups that view Assad as a lesser evil than the [Kurdish] PYD, and I am sure that some of them are talking to the Assad regime,” Koplow told Business Insider.
“But even with [former prime minister] Davutoğlu – who was the architect of Turkey’s Syria policy – gone from the scene, I find it difficult to envision a scenario in which Turkey’s policy toward Assad would change wholesale,” Koplow added.
Ahmet Davutoğlu served as Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs until he became prime minister in 2014. He resigned from his post in May under pressure from Erdogan and the AKP.
“Turkey has insisted for five years that Assad is the root cause of not only the Syrian conflict itself but the rise of ISIS and the consequent empowerment of the Kurds, and to suddenly repudiate the core belief driving everything it has done with regard to Syria would be unprecedented.”
Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Turkey and vice president of research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, noted that it would be difficult for Erdogan to rationalize the policy U-turn to Turkey’s Sunni Arab allies, who have become heavily invested in ousting Assad and arming his opposition.
“It’s plausible in phases, but it can’t happen overnight,” Schanzer said, referring a possible reset between Ankara and Damascus. Whether it be toward Israel, Russia, or the Assad regime, Schanzer noted, “Turkey is now trying to retreat from its more hostile postures — likely at the US’ urging — because it is realising that its ‘Arab Spring’ foreign policy has failed.”
Stein also noted the role the US may be playing, whether explicitly or implicitly, in encouraging Turkey to soften its stance on the embattled Syrian president. The Obama administration has been steadily shifting away from “Assad must go” and working more closely with the Russians, resulting in Turkey being largely “cut out of the negotiations about the [Syrian political] transition,” Stein said.
“Russia and the United States negotiate bilaterally and are then expected to account for the actions of their respected camps, with Turkey falling under the US umbrella. Turkey can clearly read the tea leaves and knows what the US priority is and is now acting accordingly.”
From ideology to security
Yusuf Muftuoglu, a former adviser to Erdogan’s predecessor, Abdullah Gül, argued in The Huffington Post last week that Turkey’s posture had boomeranged back with negative consequences.
Muftuoglu claimed that Turkey’s “normalization of Salafi extremism” has come back to haunt the country, in the form of deep-rooted ISIS networks poised to launch spectacular terror attacks in major Turkish cities.
“For years, Turkey supported Salafi factions, whose exact composition and overall aims it did not bother to find out too much about, just because they fought” Assad, Muftuoglu wrote last week.
Turkey was long accused by the international community of turning a blind eye to the weapons and fighters crossing its border into Syria to fight forces loyal to Assad. As those actors turned militant, they began clashing with Syrian Kurds and became useful to Ankara, which has sought to halt the Kurds’ territorial expansion along Turkey’s southern border.
“What multiplied the penetration of ISIS in Turkey, however, cannot simply be explained by the geologistics of an open border and authorities looking the other way. This conjoined with a religious and sociological dimension: Turkey’s strategy of supporting the Salafi factions in Syria, and its huge public relations machinery that praised the fighters, normalized Salafism in the eyes of many ordinary, pious Sunni Turks.”
Essentially, Muftuoglu said, “the support given to the Syrian opposition from Turkey became support for an Islamist agenda, and in the face of the main enemy, Iran, it was, in time, transformed into a sectarian, Sunni discourse.”
Erdemir, of the FDD, noted that a reset with Damascus would make sense in light of Ankara’s shift away from “an ideological orientation to a security orientation.”
As it faces threats from ISIS and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and struggles to accommodate the more than 2 million refugees that have resettled on Turkish soil, Erdogan is “back-stepping from his Islamist stance” and relinquishing “neo-Ottoman adventurism” in favour of a more pragmatic and realpolitik approach, Erdemir said.
“For Erdogan, this is simply a survival strategy,” Erdemir said. “This is like a barter. He gives up the AKP’s foreign policy priorities in exchange for his personal survival in domestic politics.”
Koplow, however, remains unconvinced.
“It would be highly odd and run counter to everything we have seen of Erdoğan and the AKP for a small group of staunch Kemalists to be at the vanguard of a seismic foreign policy shift under this particular government,” he said.
“Between the prime ministerial shakeup, the removal of Hakan Fidan as chief of Turkish intelligence, and the rapprochement with Russia and Israel, Turkey has tacitly acknowledged its past foreign policy errors. But I don’t think patching things up with Assad is going to be a part of the new program.”
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