Speaking to reporters on his way home from Germany, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sunday that Türkiye will extend an invitation to Syrian leader Bashar Assad and consider steps to restore ties between the two countries disrupted over unrest that began in Syria in 2011.

It was the first time the president openly invited the head of the Syrian regime, who was once a close friend.

Erdoğan was originally answering reporters’ questions about recent riots in central Türkiye that targeted Syrian refugees. Riots that led to vandalism of refugees’ residences and businesses came at a time of mutual statements by Ankara and Damascus for their willingness to normalize relations. Naturally, it triggered suspicions that the riots, coupled with anti-Turkish attacks in Syria’s north, may be the work of a wider provocation as they later spilled over into several Turkish cities.

Erdoğan, who previously blamed the opposition’s “poisonous” rhetoric for stoking anti-refugee sentiment, reiterated his remarks, adding that they would give the necessary response to such riots. “They are always inciting provocation and now they are targeting the refugees,” he said, noting that Türkiye was home to more than 3 million refugees.

Türkiye is prepared to always stand by a united, prosperous and peaceful Syria after a fair, honorable and inclusive agreement, Erdoğan said last Friday amid a tentative possibility to restore Turkish-Syrian ties.

“We are now at a point that the moment Bashar Assad takes a step to restore relations with Türkiye, we will exhibit the same approach,” Erdoğan was quoted saying on Sunday.

“We were not adversaries in the past. Our families were seeing each other,” Erdoğan said. He was referring to their meeting in southwestern Türkiye, where Assad took his family for a vacation in Türkiye after he had taken over the leadership of the regime in 2000. Erdoğan and his family welcomed the Assads during their vacation in 2008. The 2011 unrest, which evolved into a civil war, changed Türkiye’s stance on the Damascus regime and the two leaders severed ties, except for attending a group photo session with leaders of Arab Muslim countries during a summit in Riyadh in 2023.

“We will extend our invitation and by God’s will, we want to return Turkish-Syrian relations to the same level as in the past through this invitation. It can be any time,” he said. Erdoğan said Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close ally of Assad with whom Erdoğan last met at a recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Kazakhstan, told him that a meeting could be held in Türkiye.

“We are talking about mediation, negotiations everywhere. Why can’t we have it with our neighbor?” said Erdoğan, whose normalization efforts have made up an essential part of Türkiye’s foreign policy. For instance, in the wake of the February 2023 earthquakes in southern Türkiye, a spirit of solidarity brought Türkiye and Egypt closer and the two countries gradually normalized relations, especially after a landmark visit by Erdoğan to Cairo in February, the first in years after relations deteriorated over the ouster of former regime of Egypt.

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