Implications of the revival of contacts between Syria and Turkey

Despite significant signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, the situation of de facto partition and frozen conflict in Syria seems likely to continue.

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Photowalking/Shutterstock.
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Photowalking/Shutterstock.
Jonathan Spyer
Jonathan Spyer

Over the last three years, it has become customary to refer to the Syrian civil war as a “stalemate” and the country as in a state of de facto partition. These definitions are largely accurate. Syria remains divided into three administrative entities, each underwritten by and supported by powerful regional and global actors.

The three entities in question are:

  1. The Syrian regime-controlled area, which comprises around 65% of the country, including the main cities and the entirety of the coast. With a population estimated at 11-12 million, this area is underwritten by Russia and Iran.
  2. The area east of the Euphrates River, controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, which comprises around 25% of Syria’s territory, with a population of 2-3 million. The United States supports this area within the framework of “Operation Inherent Resolve” and the fight against the Islamic State.
  3. The area controlled by Sunni Islamist insurgents in the northwest, which comprises around 10% of the country’s territory with a population of 3-4 million. Turkey supports this area. Some analysts divide it into two zones: Idlib Province, controlled directly by the Syrian Salvation Government of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham organization, and Aleppo Province, under the direct control of Turkey and its allies. This essay will not make this separation, however, because the entire area is under Turkish guarantee, without which its rulers could not survive.

Since May 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated several times that Ankara wishes to carry out an additional military operation in Syria. This would be the fourth invasion since 2016. Like its predecessors, the purpose of such an operation would be to reduce the area controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria/Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) entity.

Turkey considers this authority a front for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been engaged in an insurgency against Ankara since 1984. In June, Erdogan told lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), “We are going into the new phase of our determination to form a 30 kilometer-deep safe zone along our southern border. … We will clear Tal Rifaat and Manbij of terrorists and do the same to other regions step-by-step.”

Such an operation would be part of a broader Turkish plan to create a 30-kilometer-wide (around 19 miles) zone of Turkish control along the entire border. The goals are to prevent the possibility of cross-border actions by PKK-associated forces and, simultaneously, deliver a fatal blow to the continued viability of the Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria.

Tal Rifaat and Manbij are located west of the Euphrates River and outside the area of cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. But they are within the area of influence of Russia, and as such, a Turkish operation there could only be carried out with the tacit permission of Moscow. Also, while Washington does not formally protect these areas, Turkey would need to secure at least a tacit acquiescence from the U.S.

The U.S. has, at least publicly, warned Turkey against any such incursion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Any escalation in northern Syria is something that we would oppose.”  U.S. opposition is not merely verbal, and Turkey cannot afford to dismiss it.  Turkish actions and stances counter to the desires of the U.S. and NATO have already cost Ankara its acquisition of F-35 fighter jets. In October, Ankara requested the purchase of 40 F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., alongside additional military equipment. The request awaits approval from the U.S. Congress.

Russian approval has also not been forthcoming. The issue was the main point at stake in recent meetings between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran and Sochi on July 19 and Aug. 5, respectively. Russia controls Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates and is the main backer of the Syrian regime. Given the contact between the SDF and the government, and the past SDF practice of inviting regime forces into areas threatened by the Turks, it is likely that Turkish and Assad regime forces would clash in the event of a new operation. Russia has no interest in this taking place, mainly because it is currently focused on events in Ukraine.

Iranian opposition to a Turkish operation should also be considered. A Turkish move to capture Tal Rifaat would likely bring Turkish forces into the proximity of two large Shia villages in northern Aleppo Province—Nubul and Zahra. Iran is committed to the security of these villages and, according to reports, sent forces there when a Turkish operation seemed imminent. The possibility of a clash with Iranian forces is an additional complicating element for Ankara.

The Assad regime and Iran’s opposition to such an operation stem from the possibility that a Turkish operation into the Tal Rifaat area would bring Turkish-allied forces close to Aleppo. This might raise fears of possible Turkish or Arab rebel pressure on Aleppo, a development that would be deeply unwelcome to the regime, Iran and Russia, for obvious reasons.

Erdogan is facing general elections next year. An operation to reduce the PKK-linked presence close to the border and repatriate some of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population might play well with parts of his electorate. Given the current Turkish domestic focus on the dire economic situation and runaway inflation (currently at around 80%), it remains questionable as to what extent a military operation, particularly given the inherent risks and uncertainties involved, would benefit the Turkish leader.

For all these reasons, a Turkish incursion to Manbij and Tal Rifaat is currently looking less likely. Against this background, the possibility of a Turkish effort to weaken or destroy the Kurdish authority in Syria and the repatriation of Syrian refugees from Turkey via diplomatic rather than military means has emerged.

Several statements by Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu have hinted at this possibility. Cavusoglu, on Aug. 11, said, “We need to bring the opposition and regime together for reconciliation somehow; there will be no permanent peace otherwise.” The foreign minister’s remarks came as a surprise to observers.

Cavusoglu continued by reiterating Turkey’s commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity in the following terms: “The border integrity, territorial integrity and peace of a country next to us directly affect us.” The foreign minister also revealed that he had met with his Syrian counterpart, Feisal Mekdad.

Erdogan echoed these sentiments in statements made on Aug. 19. The Turkish president effectively walked back a decade of Turkish policy by saying, “We don’t have such an issue whether to defeat Assad or not.” Erdogan went on to speak in support of “dialogue” between Turkey and the Syrian regime.

Erdogan’s remarks led to significant and angry demonstrations in the city of Idlib and several other cities and towns in Turkish-controlled northwest Syria. Syrian opposition supporters are aware that, should contacts between Damascus and Ankara develop and produce an agreement acceptable to both sides, they will be the sacrificial victims—handed back to the control of the regime.

According to a report on the Duvar website, Erdogan’s demands of the Syrian regime are the complete clearing of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) from its lands and the safe return of Syrian refugees from Turkey. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, according to Duvar, wants the transfer of Idlib to regime control, the transfer of the Reyhanlı-Cilvegozu border crossing, the establishment of a trade corridor between Cilvegozu and Damascus and Turkish support for Syria’s demand for an end to European and U.S. sanctions on the regime.

These demands, in essence, amount to the complete return of the regime to northeast Syria, Turkish withdrawal from the greater part of northwest Syria and the return of around three million Syrian refugees from Turkey.

A report by Ibrahim Hamidi in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Aug. 27 detailed what it claimed were the demands of the Turkish and Syrian sides as raised at a Russian-mediated meeting in Moscow in July between Hakan Fidan, head of the Turkish MIT intelligence agency, and Ali Mamlouk, special adviser to the Syrian president and director of Syria’s National Security Bureau.

According to the article, the two sides’ positions remained far apart. Hamidi stated that Damascus demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory, returning Idlib to regime control, returning the Bab al Hawa border crossing to regime control on the Syrian side, halting support for rebel groups, opening the M4 highway running from Aleppo to Hasaka, and assistance in reconstruction efforts and in countering western sanctions and recovering natural resources east of the Euphrates.

Ankara, for its part, demanded action against the YPG and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the return of Syrian refugees, negotiations between Damascus and the Turkish-backed opposition, the establishment of safe zones in Aleppo province to a distance of 30 kilometers from the Syria-Turkey border, and assistance and facilitation of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.

While the commencement of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus is undoubtedly a development of significance, the road toward realizing the aims noted above remains long and strewn with obstacles.  Most significantly, the U.S.’s continued backing of the SDF, albeit partial in nature, means that the regime cannot simply attempt to disarm the Syrian Kurds and dismantle their administrative structures, as demanded by Turkey. Given this, it is unclear how Assad can meet the Turkish leader’s primary demand, even if he wished to.

Similarly, Turkey does not appear to be in a credible position to threaten a major military incursion if the Syrian regime fails to meet its demands.  Russian, U.S. and to a lesser extent Iranian opposition to a significant military move means that Assad is less likely to be intimidated by this prospect.

In addition, Assad may be in no hurry to receive three-to-four million Syrians from Turkey, given that this population will consist almost entirely of Sunni Arab Syrians opposed to his rule. Thus, despite significant signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, the situation of de facto partition and frozen conflicts seem likely to continue in Syria for the foreseeable future.

At present, players more powerful and significant than either Erdogan or Assad on the Syrian scene look set to prevent the full realization of Erdogan’s demands. And for as long as the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria survives, Erdogan is unlikely to consider the wholesale abandonment of his clients in northern Syria.

The contacts between Damascus and Ankara, while significant, thus do not alter the reality that external state guarantors remain the key players in Syria. One or more of these players would have to shift positions for a significant change to occur. Specifically, the U.S. would need to signal to the Syrian Kurds that its departure is imminent, and/or the U.S. and Russia would need to withdraw their opposition to an additional major Turkish military operation in northern Syria.

At the same time, the diplomacy of recent months represents a certain success for Russia. Moscow wants to further solidify a sense of commonality between the regime, Turkey and Russia, centered on opposition to the U.S. and separatist movements, as the Russians refer to the Kurdish project in Syria. Erdogan’s statements, his apparent agreement not to launch an incursion at present and the Fidan-Mamlouk talks in Moscow go towards establishing this.

The next stage will likely be a Russian effort to develop an action plan acceptable to both parties for expanded security cooperation. Russia’s efforts are noteworthy. However, the reality of sharp divisions between the Syrian regime and Turkey, as well as the inability of either to satisfy core elements of the agenda of the other, means that concrete results are likely to be limited to the tactical and security spheres for the time being, rather than impacting the fundamental shape of the Syrian situation.

Regarding the consequences of these events for Israel, it seems that Israel benefits from maintaining the status quo in Syria. Israel’s main interest in Syria is its ongoing campaign to prevent the consolidation and entrenchment of the Iranian military project. The current state of de facto partition and frozen conflict in Syria, as well as the continued isolation of the Damascus regime, provide ideal conditions for the continuation of this campaign, in that as long as the Assad regime lacks international legitimacy, Israel will face little or no pressure to end the campaign. Despite the increasing interactions between Damascus and Ankara, no significant shift in ties appears to be on the horizon, which is a net positive for Jerusalem.

It is worth noting that Israel’s interests in this area do not always coincide with those of Israel’s Gulf partners. The United Arab Emirates has been one of the pioneers of normalizing relations with Damascus. It has also recently patched up its differences with Turkey. It is at least possible, if not likely, that UAE diplomacy played a role in the effort to secure Turkish-Syrian rapprochement as part of the larger effort to end Syria’s civil war and return the country to a normalized position vis-à-vis the international system under Assad’s rule with the country reunified. In any event, for the time being, this endeavor has failed.

The continued existence of the Kurdish-dominated territory in the northeast is the major impediment to a successful rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. While militarily formidable, this region is the most politically fragile of the three. The US has frequently emphasized the limited nature of its relationship with the SDF, which is focused, at least formally, solely on the ongoing campaign against Islamic State remnants.

However, in this case, what is initially apparent is not always the entire picture. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration has avoided surprises in Middle East policy and, following a review of its Syria policy, has stated that it has no immediate plans to withdraw from northeast Syria.

Brett McGurk, the chief architect of the de facto U.S.-Kurdish alliance, retains a senior and influential position in the Biden administration. He is the National Security Council’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. While the ultimate longevity of the U.S. presence in Syria remains open to question, there are no signs of imminent departure, and departure remains currently unlikely.

This is due to an additional, unstated purpose for the U.S. presence: It gives Washington relevance in any conversation about Syria’s future, effectively acting as a US veto over all plans. No less importantly, this presence serves as a partial buffer to Iranian expansion westward from Iraq. It requires the Iranians to use a limited number of roads from the Albu Kamal border crossing when traveling from east to west. Pro-Iran forces attempting to move west towards the Syrian-Israeli border would be exposed to Israeli air or artillery strikes in the event of a major conflict between Israel and Iran. Israel and Jordan support the U.S.’s sustained involvement in Syria.

Eleven years after the outbreak of the civil war, Syria remains a central focal point for clashes between rival regional (Turkey, Iran, Israel) and global (U.S., Russia) powers. The interests of these powers and the ability of the global players to impact on and sometimes override the options and preferences of the regional ones remain the key dynamics to watch in the country. In this regard, it may be concluded that, as of now, the main result and outcome of the Syrian civil war has been the practical eclipse of Syrian sovereignty and the conversion of the country into an arena in which interests other than those of Syrians contest with one another.

It is also true that, before the civil war, Syrians did not live under a government primarily focused on advancing their interests but rather under a dictatorship primarily focused on its own survival. As of now, the return of this regime to greater control appears to be the main alternative to the current state of affairs.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars and The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict. He is a regular contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, and has published in leading journals and media outlets, including Middle East Quarterly, The Times (of London), Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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