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What are Erdogan’s intentions for Syria?

August 22, 2022 at 10:36 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkiye on 18 August 2022 [TUR Presidency/ Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]

The recent statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the need to “take further steps with Syria”, a reference to the murderous regime of Bashar Al-Assad, destroyed our last glimmer of hope. Those of us who love the Syrian people and Erdogan himself were shocked by his words, as we saw him as the protector of the Syrian revolution. Now, though, he is paving the way for normalised relations between Ankara and Damascus.

“We need to bring the opposition and regime together for reconciliation somehow, there will be no permanent peace otherwise,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu two weeks ago. This angered anti-regime Syrians, so the minister sought to placate them by announcing that Turkiye would never abandon the people of Syria to the oppression of the Assad regime. Officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara said that Cavusoglu’s statement had been misconstrued. However, this claim was made at a time when Turkish media were saying that the government was indeed moving towards normalising relations with the Syrian regime.

Ankara’s decision to normalise with Damascus was finally revealed by Erdogan. He tried to justify it by saying that the move is being made in order to thwart many plots in the Islamic world; and that Turkiye is part of the solution and has taken on responsibility for Syria. He added that Turkiye’s goal is to maintain regional peace and protect the country from the dangerous threats arising from the crisis across the border in its southern neighbour.

Has the matter been resolved? Will Syrian-Turkish relations return to what they were before the Syrian revolution? They were well advanced in terms of cooperation in security, economic and trade matters; even visas were no longer needed for travel between the two countries. Or are there other, hidden, issues on the horizon that could hinder or delay this move that is catastrophic for the Syrian opposition, especially in the northern parts of Syria which were liberated from the clutches of the criminal regime? The people of Daraa, Aleppo, Homs, Deir Ez-Zor and other areas fled to the north, where they found a safe haven from Assad’s oppression, injustice and tyranny. Most have relatives and friends who have been killed or tortured and displaced by the regime.

READ: Turkiye deports Syrian lawyer after arresting his mother in pressure campaign

The matter cannot be resolved easily. Jordan has also tried and failed, despite the fact that there were phone conversations between King Abdullah and Assad, not least because the Syrian regime is controlled by Iranian militias.

There is no doubt that the regime will be happy with the shift in Turkiye’s position, after being so close to falling in 2014 when Turkiye was one of the main supporters of the Syrian revolution. Now Ankara is knocking civilly on the door.

The reality appears to be that Turkiye is at Assad’s door out of its own intertwined or contradictory interests with Russia and Iran, which occupy Syria. The regime in Damascus is the facade for the occupying powers, who pull the puppet Assad’s strings.

This prompts an important question. Will Syria be the subject of Turkish-Iranian-Russian bargaining or is it simply a Turkish tactic rather than a strategy that has already been adopted and is being implemented?

Whatever the purpose of Erdogan’s statements, we must take into account national interests. Britain’s Winston Churchill once said that there are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. It is clear that the ruling AK Party in Turkiye has seen the change in the international position towards Syria, and Turkiye’s allegiance has changed from the US to Russia, so the Syrian file has become a source of danger to the party and a bargaining chip used by the opposition. There is an important presidential election in Turkiye next year, and Syrian refugees are an electoral issue that could cost the AK Party votes. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that when the Syrian revolution began in 2011 Turkish politicians did not expect it to last long. He has been trying to avoid the responsibilities of his country’s escapade in Syria by saying that research indicates that 60 to 70 per cent of Syrians say that they want to return to their country if there is a guarantee of safe return.

I say “escapade”, because Turkiye entered Syria, just like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, at the height of the revolution and the expected victory of the revolutionaries. The then Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu convinced Erdogan that Assad would fall relatively quickly. Today, Davutoglu is criticising Erdogan and opposing the restoration of relations with the Assad regime. He has his sights set on the upcoming election and securing the votes of Syrians who now have Turkish citizenship.

Why do we only blame Turkiye and not Saudi Arabia? The Saudis supported the Syrian revolution politically, financially and militarily in the beginning, and stipulated regime change, but then Riyadh climbed down and had cordial contact with the regime. I think Saudi Arabia should have stopped at that, and not conspired against the revolution, withhold money and weapons from the opposition and stop its progress in Daraa, the cradle of the revolution. It eventually handed it over to the murderous regime, which took revenge on the people by killing and raping detainees and dropping barrel bombs on them.

READ: Turkiye’s Erdogan does not rule out dialogue with Syria

There is no doubt that the Syrian revolution is the greatest Arab revolution ever, with many sacrifices by the people who have seen their efforts thwarted and attacked. They have been abandoned by the so-called “Friends of Syria” who want to grab their share of the spoils. The people of Syria should have stuck to their early slogan — “We only have God” — and not hand themselves over to countries that claimed to support them, backing them with money and weapons until they became subservient to them and forced to follow their orders. This was a betrayal of the revolution.

The Syrian revolution exposed the treachery and betrayal of relatives and fellow countrymen, but the story is not over yet. Revolutions are like wars; they have rounds and battles that go on until the curtain is drawn. We should not be fooled by Bashar Al-Assad still being President of Syria, as the embers of the revolution still glow in the conscience of every free Syrian, waiting for the moment to ignite once more. Surely President Erdogan understands this?

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