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As Turkiye moves to reconcile with Assad, the Middle East’s opposition movements now are left homeless

August 22, 2022 at 8:51 pm

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks at the panel named “Syria Refugee Crisis” within the 1st Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Switzerland on December 16, 2019 [Bayram Altuğ/Anadolu Agency]

After a decade of support for the Syrian revolution and opposition, Turkiye seems to be having a change of heart. Over the course of 2022, there mysteriously emerged reports claiming that – in no official terms –  the Turkish government may soon restore its ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, growing louder until Ankara said that it is willing to work with Damascus to bring the Kurdish militias in north-east Syria under control.

Such hints of a possible reconciliation have, this month, been confirmed to be true.

First, Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, announced at a news conference that he had met his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, in Serbia last October, and that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services had restarted contact with each other. Even that, though, was not a definitive and clear statement of reconciliation. He further doubled down, days later, when he said that the government has always supported a political solution to the Syrian conflict, reiterating the country’s – meaning the regime’s – territorial integrity and urging Assad and the opposition to reconcile.

Then, last week, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, directly admitted that his government does not seek to remove Assad from power in Syria. So far, that has been the clearest and most positive statement regarding the dictator from the President or any of his government officials over the past decade. We should wholly expect to hear an announcement of a full – or at least partial – Turkish reconciliation with the Syrian regime.

The entire episode is a far cry from Erdogan’s warning, 9 years ago, to Assad that “I swear you will pay for this. If God permits, we will see that this murderer will be held accountable in the world.”

Syrians’ reactions to the looming Turkish efforts were predictable: outrage, widespread protests throughout the liberated areas of northern Syria, and a refusal to reconcile with Assad in any way. For a people who have suffered countless chemical attacks and barrel bombs dropped by the regime, had their cities and homes destroyed by regime and Russian airstrikes and had family members disappeared and tortured to death – with tens of thousands still missing – over the past decade, who can blame them?

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As is usually the case, however, morality and human rights play little part in international relations and determining the course of bilateral ties between States. Perhaps openly religious leaders like Erdogan have, at least for a time, sympathised with the Syrian people and strove to solve the problem that is the Assad regime, which the Turkish leadership and the international community saw then as the cause of strife in Syria. But, after a decade and the altered geopolitical circumstances, a moral stance was bound to lose over pragmatism.

The purpose of reconciliation with Damascus is clear and its benefits to Ankara are many, of course, at least on its face. Erdogan and his government are under enormous pressure to find a solution to the continued presence of millions of Syrian refugees within the country, and there is also the need to stave off the Kurdish militias from the Turkish-Syrian border region. Turkiye’s hope is that the Assad regime could cooperate and provide assistance in those national interests.

Aside from those changing circumstances, however, there is another shift which is a direct result of Turkiye’s reconciliation drive – the homelessness of opposition movements in the Middle East.

As a crossroad and bridge of the world – both in the geographical and political senses – the country has also served as a refuge to various opposition movements or dissident individuals in the region. Syrian opposition leaders, figures and even military officers who defected from Assad’s forces to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and later groups have lived within Turkiye over the years.

Meetings held by the officially-recognised Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), have also taken place in Istanbul, which became the headquarters of the coalition. In March this year, the SNC reportedly closed its office in Ankara, in a move which is claimed to be temporary and not at the demand of the Turkish government.

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Egyptian opposition elements, too, found refuge in Turkiye since the military coup against elected President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, after which current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi established his authoritarian government. Although there were no political opposition parties or groups which operated from Turkiye since then, opposition media outlets safely operated from Istanbul and freely spoke out against Sisi.

That was until last year when the Turkish government instructed those media outlets and channels not to release content too critical of the Egyptian government due to Ankara’s efforts to reconcile and restore relations with Cairo. That stifling of expression proved too much for them, prompting the major opposition channel Mekameleen TV to pull out of Turkiye earlier this year and relaunch operations from various world capitals, without any established headquarters.

Even the presence of Palestinian resistance figures and members within Turkiye – whether affiliated with Hamas or others – may be classed as opposition elements based in the country, from where it allegedly has offices. While the Israelis accuse Hamas of operating and directing “terror attacks” from Istanbul, both the Movement and Turkiye have denied those accusations.

Although the extent of the group’s existence within the country is not entirely clear, it is certain that its members or influence do have a degree of presence, and it does enjoy “stable” relations with the Turkish government. Yet, months ago, in anticipation of the restoration of full ties with Tel Aviv last week, Ankara reportedly asked dozens of Hamas members to leave the country and prevented others from entering.

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Step by step, elements of opposition movements from various countries in the Middle East have found it increasingly difficult to remain in Turkiye and maintain their bases there. The Turkish government is undergoing a shift in regional policies and outlook, whether for the better or worse, and accommodating the opposition movements to the governments it once opposed is no longer a priority. It might even be a hindrance, in Ankara’s view.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Turkiye will blatantly turn against or harm the opposition movements – it has reportedly assured that it will not crack down on the Egyptian opposition, has expressed no aim to drop support for the Syrian opposition, and has guaranteed that it will not abandon the Palestinian cause, despite close ties with Israel.

It does mean, however, that the opposition movements in the Middle East are now left largely homeless and out in the cold.

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