Is Turkey ready to embrace Assad?

Middle East autocrats are back in fashion. It was not that long ago that the downfall of one Arab strongman after another raised expectations of political change, however messy and disruptive. But hope soon crashed against the hard realities of the region. 

The anciens régimes of countries like Syria and Egypt proved resilient. They fought their corner until the bitter end and showed no remorse in suppressing any opposition. In Syria’s case, that has happened at immense human cost and physical destruction, putting the country’s very existence at risk. 

Yet that seems to matter less and less to the outside world. It is now painfully clear that both the West and Turkey, having once sided with demands for change, are making peace with the el-Sisis and Assads of this world. Regional stability, the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups, as well as the fear of migrants, are all behind the rapprochement. 

The West has gone much further down that road. On Feb. 24, for instance, Egypt hosted a summit of the EU and the Arab League. Gathered in Sharm el Sheikh, the leaders of the 28-strong bloc pledged to strengthen Arab-European relations. What that means in practice is nebulous. However, the lack of substance aside, the meeting was a major win for Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.

When el-Sisi seized power in a 2013 military coup, the general came in for harsh criticism in Europe. In August 2013, the EU imposed an arms embargo in response to the violence unleashed by his new government. But in reality a number member states continued selling weapons to Egypt, taking advantage of the fact that rather than formally embedded in EU law, the ban resulted from a political declaration. Now, the Cairo strongman has graduated into a partner of choice for the Europeans. Much like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was for generations of Western leaders.

There is a good chance that Turkey is heading in the same direction with regard to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conceded his government had been maintaining low-level contacts with Damascus. 

This is hardly news for anyone following the conflict in Syria. It is true that Turkey cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian government in September 2011 and has been pushing for the removal of Assad ever since. Yet there have been reports of back-channel communications since mid-2016. 

Turkey’s blossoming friendship with Russia and the Astana Process co-sponsored with Moscow and Tehran has been the next step. In Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan has a credible intermediary between himself and Assad. More than that, Turkey hopes that Russia could, on occasion, put pressure on the regime and its Iranian patrons.

However, it is Turkey that has been giving ground, not the other way around. In December, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu admitted Ankara could work with Assad provided he won a democratic election. Turkey’s stance is softening.

There is no doubt that there is much going behind the scenes. At the Jan. 23 summit with Erdoğan in Moscow, Putin brought up, out of the blue, the Adana Protocol signed by senior Turkish and Syrian diplomats in October 1998, as the basis for a deal allowing the Turkish armed forces to set up a buffer zone in northeast Syria. 

In effect, the Russian president demanded the Turkish government restore relations with Assad. That is his price for allowing Erdoğan to rout the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey considers the main external threat to its national security. With his latest statement, the Turkish president is signalling he is open for business.

To be sure, normalisation could be a long way off. The latest meeting between Putin, Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, on Feb. 14, failed to score much progress towards a deal on the Syrian northeast. Disagreements on the fate of the rebel-held region of Idlib as well as the composition of a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria present another obstacle. Turkey will also follow closely how the U.S. moves, now that the Trump administration has announced that it will keep 400 troops in Syria.

There are moving parts with respect to Europe too. The intra-EU debate on Syria is heating up. A donor conference on Syria is scheduled to take place March 12-14 in Brussels. Countries like Italy, Austria and Hungary, who are all sympathetic to Russia and keen to keep refugees out, are arguing for restoring links to Assad. If one of those breaks ranks with the rest of the EU and re-opens its embassy in Damascus, as the United Arab Emirates did at the end of 2018, the Russians will ramp up pressure on Turkey to follow suit. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.