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Has Turkey abandoned Assad’s departure as a condition for progress?

January 6, 2022 at 2:00 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech after Cabinet meeting in Ankara, Turkey [Doğukan Keskinkılıç – Anadolu Agency]

The four Turkish conditions for the withdrawal of its troops from Syria, as reported in the media, have raised questions about the reality of Turkey’s position on the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, and whether Ankara has changed its position of refusing to recognise its legitimacy. In what appeared to be a response to the Russian envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet cited unnamed sources and reported on 24 December that the four conditions are that all parties agree on the new constitution to protect the rights of all groups of the Syrian people; establish an electoral system in which all groups can participate freely; form a legitimate government after the elections; and for this government to eliminate terrorist organisations that target Turkey’s territorial integrity.

The importance of the question stems from the fact that Turkey is currently the only country directly involved in the Syrian crisis that publicly refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the regime in Damascus. It is also the only country that still openly supports the opposition. It is true that the conditions were mentioned in a newspaper report, but the lack of official comment on it after all this time, neither denying nor confirming, or even clarifying, gives it some credibility.

What is clear is that the four conditions for withdrawal from Syria did not overtly stipulate the departure of Assad and the regime. Has Turkey’s declared position on this changed?

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Turkey is one of the countries that has changed its position on the situation in Syria since the start of the revolution in 2011, based on three basic criteria: the condition on the ground in Syria, the international approach to events, and its own domestic situation. Hence, after years of supporting the opposition, Ankara accepted the idea of a political solution that seeks to remove Assad from the future government of Syria, but does not stipulate his departure in the first place. Turkey is thus involved in the current political process, including the work of the Constitutional Committee, taking place between the regime and the opposition.

Ankara also talks from time to time about channels of communication and contact with the Syrian regime through its intelligence agency, as well as the indirect Russian channel known to all. As such, its position before the four conditions were put forward was not to demand the overthrow of the regime, not even its immediate departure, but rather to work on it not ruling Syria after the political solution.

In short, this means that Turkey deals with the regime but does not recognise it, although there are many voices inside Turkey — some close to the government — calling for recognition and cooperation with it within the framework of the common goal, which is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state for the PKK in northern Syria.

People attend a protest to condemn Assad regime forces’ suspected chemical gas attack in the opposition-held Syrian province of Idlib town, in Istanbul, Turkey on 4 April, 2017 [Abdullah Coşkun/Anadolu Agency]

Among the drivers for Ankara’s lack of recognition for the regime in Damascus is that it would put Turkey in an awkward position if it demanded Turkish withdrawal from Syria; the regime has done this before and will do so again. At the moment, Turkey’s presence is legitimate; it is working within Syria according to several pretexts, including questions surrounding the regime’s legitimacy and its ability to extend its control over the land and protect the borders.

There is also a reference within the four conditions to a situation in which it will be difficult for Assad himself to remain in power. Drafting a constitution that all Syrians will accept, holding elections that all Syrians will participate in and accept, and forming a government that represents all Syrians means that the imagined and expected regime in the future will be something very different from the current one, unless the Syrians accept the continuation of the current regime, including its head, but that requires another discussion.

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The current relative calm and openness in the region, including the openness of some Arab countries to the Syrian regime, may mean that in the future, mitigating measures may be taken towards Assad. Likewise, additional developments may occur in the relations between Ankara and Damascus. However, there are no indications that Turkey has changed its declared positions on the Syrian issue in general, and the regime in particular.

Even the idea of developing the Adana Agreement that was mentioned by the Russians and in a report that talked about a meeting between Turkey and the Syrian regime in Jordan — a meeting that the latter denied and the two alleged parties did not comment on — implies the possibility of developing relations between the two sides. However, Turkey is seeking to deepen its role in the north of Syria and not end it or withdraw, and this is what is pushing Ankara to postpone its recognition of the regime or not recognise it at all.

In the long term, it is logical that Ankara will be within the regional and international framework that operates on the basis of accepting what the Syrians accept. However, in any case, the pursuit of a stable and sustainable solution in Syria will in the future push the idea of everyone, even Russia, abandoning Assad and perhaps restructuring the regime without him at the top. This will be a compromise that satisfies the various regional and international parties and guarantees their interests.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 4 January 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.