Erdogan’s Syrian Policy : Continuation of the Status Quo? – Sinem Adar / FPRI

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Erdoğan’s victory was driven by rhetoric stoking further conflict with Kurdish actors in Turkey and Syria. He is unlikely to back down from this position in the future. Turkey will seek to balance its “forever war” with the PKK against desires to repatriate Syrian refugees in potential negotiations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. By Sinem Adar in Foreign Policy Research Institute on June 5, 2023.

Unlike in previous elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to deliver his victory speech at the presidential complex in Ankara, the so-called Külliye, instead of the AKP party headquarters. This choice was far from a simple coincidence. It was a display of power. After all, Erdoğan won the second round with a margin of 4.3 percent despite economic, political, and social vulnerabilities. 

A several-hundred-thousand-strong crowd that had gathered in front of the Külliye was frenzied, waving Turkish flags, making nationalist grey wolf salutes, and Islamist Rabia signs. National grandeur and rancor marked Erdoğan’s speech. As crowds were chanting for the execution of Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned co-chair of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the president promised that Demirtaş would not be released during his rule. He also promised that he would ensure that Turkey’s southern borders would be free of terrorism. “Returning refugees back to Syria is part of this plan”, added Erdoğan. 

Repatriation of Refugees

The Syrian war and its consequences certainly set their mark on the Turkish elections. Take, for instance, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactical shift between the two rounds towards a more nationalist and xenophobic tone with an eye on the nationalist votes. As a result, he was able to get the endorsement of Ümit Özdağ, the founder of the far-right Victory Party’s (Zafer Partisi), who is known for his stark opposition to refugees and his promise to defend Turkish identity.

Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees along with close to 320,000 “persons of concern” from other nationalities. Anti-refugee and anti-migrant sentiments are strong due to economic, cultural, and social reasons, turning migration into one of the main drivers of political competition. Even the AKP itself has moved away from its earlier hospitable policies. The issue of repatriation is a shared concern across the political spectrum. 

Halting Kurdish Autonomy

For Ankara, repatriation of Syrian refugees has been, since its first ground incursion into northern Syria in 2016, coupled with the creation of what it calls a safe zone in the region. Turkey’s security and foreign policy elites would like to see this space inhabited by a loyal Sunni constituency

After an initial policy of toppling Assad, Turkish decision-makers shifted gears between 2014–2016 toward preventing Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). 

Today, the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) controls territory extending from the northern Aleppo Governorate and the district of Afrin to the area east of the Euphrates River between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, thanks to Ankara’s military incursions between 2016 and 2019. In these areas, Turkey provides security, health, and education services, and the Turkish lira is widely used. Turkey also has a military presence in Idlib province – the only remaining opposition-held ”de-escalation zone” – under a March 2020 agreement between Turkey and Russia. This area is home to between three and four million people, 75 percent of whom depend on humanitarian assistance.

Turkey’s Syria Quagmire

The sustainability of Turkey’s Syria policy is questionable. Ankara has since late 2021 to early 2022 been pushing for two seemingly contradictory agendas. On the one hand, it has been threatening a military incursion into northern Syria. Yet even though Turkish drone strikes targeting senior Kurdish officials, with the aim to consolidate gains in the northeast, continued throughout all this time, Ankara did not strike a ground offensive, as it lacked the necessary support from Russia, Iran, and the United States. 

At the same time, the Erdoğan government has also been trying to mend ties with Bashar-al-Assad. Ankara’s rapprochement efforts with Assad dovetail with regional normalization and alliance-building efforts. Assad’s readmission into the Arab League, and rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Arab states and Israel, and among Arab Gulf monarchies are events pointing at regionalism that is undergirded by decreasing trust in the United States.  

Notwithstanding their rapprochement, Assad and Erdoğan also have serious disagreements. Damascus demands Ankara withdraw its troops from Syria. Even though a gradual withdrawal might also find support within Turkey’s security circles, the danger of a new refugee movement from Idlib to the Turkish border, and the Syrian opposition’s dependency on Ankara’s patronage, complicate the situation. 

The Future of Ankara’s Syria Policy

For Turkey, there is no easy exit from Syria. In its negotiations with Assad, Ankara aims that any possible new arrangement ensures that the fragile balance in Idlib is not shaken, a reasonable portion of the Syrian refugees go back to Syria, and Kurdish autonomy is prevented. Erdoğan’s emphasis during his victory speech on doubling down on security threats at Turkey’s southern border implies the continuation of Ankara’s forever war against the PKK. Erdoğan’s determination to keep Demirtaş in jail, participation of the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR) into Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance ahead of the elections, and his promise to keep Turkey’s southern border secure are all indications that Ankara will not moderate its goal to halt Kurdish autonomy in Syria. 

At the same time, Erdoğan also seeks to promote reconstruction efforts in Syria. For a long time now, the president has tried to gain support of the country’s Western allies to rebuild Syria’s northwest to prepare for it for a return of refugees currently living in Turkey. His victory speech hinted that he is now looking at Qatar to finance such a reconstruction project. This might find support in Europe and the United States, which both consider economic and political stabilization of the country’s northwest (Aleppo countryside and Idlib) vital not only to prevent further refugee movements, but also in light of the regional rapprochement with Damascus that contributes to the normalization of Assad’s rule. 

By Sinem Adar in Foreign Policy Research Institute on June 5, 2023.

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