Assad and Putin at a meeting with the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defence in 2017
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at one-on-one talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last week, Turkish, Russian, and Syrian intelligence officers and defence ministers negotiated in Moscow, the highest level of official contact between Syria and Turkey in more than ten years. In response to these talks, Erdogan announced on Thursday that he may sit down with Assad for the sake of “peace and stability” in Syria.
This is a remarkable turn of the Turkish regime. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Erdogan has consistently sided with the Syrian opposition and argued that Assad must go. The Syrian National Army (SNA), that is fighting against the Assad regime, depends entirely on Turkish support.
On Thursday, Erdogan was hinting at future trilateral meetings, between Turkey, Syria, and Russia. He said: “Turkey, Russia and Syria have launched a process in Moscow. “After that we may meet as the Russian, Turkish, and Syrian leaders, depending on the developments. Our aim is to establish peace and stability in the region.”
Erdogan’s change of mind is linked to the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled for June 2023. Because of the economic challenges Turkey is currently facing, these elections will likely be the most difficult for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since the elections of 2002.
Turkey is hosting millions of Syrian refugees. With the economy in free fall, many Turkish citizens are blaming the refugees for their financial troubles. Turkish opposition politicians are happy to take advantage of these increasingly hostile sentiments surrounding Syrian refugees within Turkish society. Many voters believe that the refugees should go back to Syria. This can only be achieved through negotiations with the Assad regime. It appears that Erdogan is bowing to this electoral pressure.
In addition, Turkey’s goal to invade the North of Syria, supported by the SNA, is another factor in his call for Turkish-Syrian negotiations. However, Erdogan is waiting for permission from Russia and Iran, important allies to the Assad regime. Russia and Syria aim to drive the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) from the region, if necessary with the help of Erdogan. The YPG is closely related to the PKK, the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party. Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization and has blamed it for the attack in Istanbul in November.
In response to the negotiations, thousands of Syrians took to the streets this weekend, to protest the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria. De demonstrations took place in the Northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The protesters fear that they will suffer from the reconciliation of Erdogan and Assad. The Syrian opposition says that it is unthinkable to consider a future in which Turkey, its most important supporter, makes peace with the Syrian regime.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons