In the past days, Syrians living in the northwestern regions of the war-torn country have been attacking Turkish troops and tearing down Turkish flags, angered by Ankara’s contact with the Damascus regime of Bashar Assad.

For the first time, Assad openly voiced “Syria’s openness to all initiatives related to the relationship between Syria and Türkiye, based on the sovereignty of the Syrian state over all its territories on the one hand and combating all forms of terrorism and its organizations on the other hand.” Early 2023 witnessed similar rapprochement efforts with the Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers as well as defense chiefs coming together. Yet the process was choked when Assad insisted that Türkiye withdraw all its troops from the country as a precondition for further dialogue.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well indicated a positive approach to talking with Assad. “There is no reason why (diplomatic ties) should not be established,” Erdoğan told reporters Friday.

The statements and the possibility of normalization were enough to spark unrest in Syria’s opposition-held areas. The Turkish army was ordered not to target locals under any condition and to just shoot in the air if necessary to disperse the angry crowds. Videos from the area showed Syrians hurling stones at Turkish armored vehicles and chanting against the troop presence.

The incidents, however, are not linked to the developments in Kayseri province, contrary to what some news outlets have been deducing.

Another main point for anger, besides Erdoğan’s statements, was the opening of a transit point in Syria. The Abu Zindan gate south of al-Bab was opened on June 28 through the mediation of Russia and aimed for the first time to establish a trade route between Türkiye and Damascus. Although the protests caused the transit point to be closed temporarily, along with other border crossings, it will likely be reopened once calm is achieved.

Abu Zindan marks the first concrete initiative of normalization. It is usual for countries with limited diplomatic contact to initially establish ties in softer areas such as trade. This is usually followed by the next step of diplomatic and political relations. It can be seen that Ankara follows this policy regarding the Assad regime.

Revising Syria policies

Currently, there are three main reasons behind a higher possibility for normalization between Ankara and Damascus.

The first one is that Assad in the past year made significant diplomatic gains, especially in the Arab world and the region as a whole. Many countries that cut their ties after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 have since restored diplomatic ties with Damascus, reopened their diplomatic missions and invited the leader to summits such as the Arab League. In a context where the whole region is on the track to readmitting Assad into platforms and meetings, it is difficult for Türkiye to be left out. Several countries, including Iraq, have thus insisted on creating a dialogue between the foes. Russia’s special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev said that the conditions for dialogue between Türkiye and Syria are favorable at the moment.

The second motive is the upcoming U.S. elections in November. Countries in the region have been recalibrating and reassessing their policies for a change of leadership within the superpower. In the case of a Donald Trump victory in the U.S. elections, one might expect a lesser U.S. presence in Syria, considering the former president’s policies regarding the region. With the main backer of the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian wing YPG, Washington, gone or at least lessened, the group would enter a life-threatening situation. This will leave Türkiye alone with Iran and Russia – both of whom strongly support Assad and have indirect links with PKK-related groups. Moscow and Tehran are known to be against a greater Turkish presence for another military operation in Syria. Yet, Russia being involved in the war in Ukraine and increasing ties with Türkiye amid sanctions could lead Moscow to make small concessions to Ankara’s aims in Syria.

The third rationale is the continuing migration problem in Türkiye. With the economy in crisis, the Turkish people have increasingly accused Syrians and migrants in general of being a burden to the country. The latest incidents and tensions are proof of this as are the anti-migrant rhetoric of some opposition parties. Ankara is aware that at some point the issue has to be solved as the ruling party has already suffered losses in the local elections partly due to economic and migration issues, among others. Normalization with Assad could open the way to finding a formula through which voluntary Syrians could return to the country if a guarantee from Damascus is attained to hinder dissenters from being persecuted or thrown into prison upon their return.

The opening of the transit point as well as the words of Erdoğan point toward new developments regarding Türkiye’s policies against the Syrian regime. The Turkish leader saying that Ankara does not aim to interfere with the internal affairs of Syria is a constructive statement welcomed by the regime.

In a backdrop where Assad is being welcomed into the club and where regional balances could change, Ankara has to reconsider and adapt its strategy. The next months will highly likely show back channels and preparations for further contact as seen with Abu Zindan. However, it is not to be forgotten that Ankara will continue to preserve the rights of the Syrian opposition and defend the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, which calls for a cease-fire and political settlement in Syria.

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