Will Normalization With Assad Come Back to Bite Turkey’s Erdogan?

Will Normalization With Assad Come Back to Bite Turkey’s Erdogan?

The risks of a Turkish effort to normalize ties with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria are profound.

Since last year, Turkey has embarked on an ambitious and largely successful endeavor to mend relations with former rivals. Relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, and, recently, Saudi Arabia have been rehabilitated. Several bilateral visits have been exchanged, and Ankara has emerged as an imperturbable actor within the changing Middle Eastern arena. The degrees to which these processes have matured are, of course, distinct, with varying levels of success leaving Turkish interventions fatigued at times, largely due to a mismatch in expectations with the involved second party. Adding to the inherent fragilities of the process, Ankara is now rumored to have upped the ante in its engagement with the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

While an all-encompassing normalization with Assad remains difficult to orchestrate, at least for the time being, the notion of normalization with Syria represents how Turkey has overexerted its efforts to implement this novel foreign policy paradigm. Previously, normalizing with Assad was inconceivable, not only because of Turkey’s own agenda in Syria, but also due to Ankara’s commitments to transatlantic security and the Western alliance. Various factors, chief among them Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral calculations and turn toward engagement with Russia, have hastened the process, with Ankara failing to carry out a thorough risk assessment of how events could transpire.

Initial Success Brings Grand Expectations

Turkey and the UAE have both driven a significant expansion of relations. This has largely been the result of a strong consensus between Erdogan and Mohammed bin Zayed to replace competition with cooperation. This consensus has led to the establishment of a status quo between Ankara and Abu Dhabi in Libya and the hastening of Emirati investment in Turkey, a key goal for Erdogan in his hopes to ease ailing domestic economic conditions with significant investments from cash-rich countries. 

Relations with Israel retain a certain level of somber optimism, in which Turkey has toned down criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in exchange for a platform to rebuild trust. Previous harsh statements, issued either by Erdogan’s office or the foreign ministry, have now been replaced by generically worded calls for calm. Erdogan and Israeli president Issac Herzog have developed a sound working relationship, though the Israelis appear to be cautious, with ambassadorial appointments between the two countries still yet to materialize.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, have removed a major hurdle from their relationship—the question of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing—with the Turkish side now expecting a magnanimous move from Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to resolve to elevate ties. Turkey continues to hope for a significant deposit from Saudi Arabia into the Turkish central banking system, coupled with significant investments into the country, with Ankara and Riyadh reportedly continuing negotiations.

Of these three processes, relations with Abu Dhabi have produced the most desirable results for Erdogan and have created new venues for cooperation. Moving onto Israel and Saudi Arabia, results have largely fallen short of Turkey’s grandiose expectations. A much-advertised possible accord between Turkey and Israel to cooperate on energy transfers in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the transfer of Israeli natural gas to European markets as the goal, is yet to see any attention, despite discourse in Ankara that deemed energy as the new building block in repairing ties. On the Saudi front, the process is moving slowly as well, with the two bilateral meetings between Erdogan and MbS still yet to produce results on the direct transfer of funds into Turkey.

Erdogan’s Assad Gambit

The latest candidate in Ankara’s normalization strategy is allegedly the Assad regime. The Turkish foreign minister revealed that he had briefly met his Syrian counterpart in Belgrade last year and suggested that Turkey must strive to advance reconciliation between the Syrian opposition and Assad. Erdogan added that Turkey can never abandon diplomacy in Syria. These developments, coupled with statements from several senior members of Erdogan’s party in favor of rebuilding the relationship, suggest that a process has emerged. Moreover, there is speculation that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been pressing Erdogan to meet with Assad, and the Turkish foreign minister’s remarks came shortly after Erdogan and Putin held a nearly five-hour-long bilateral meeting in Sochi earlier last month.

In addition to pressure from Moscow, electoral calculations back home could be motivating Erdogan to normalize ties with Syria. Just as normalizing with the UAE and Saudi Arabia serves the purpose of directing funds into Turkey to ease economic conditions and usher in another victory for Erdogan, normalizing with Assad could also serve to boost the president’s diminishing popularity.

Turkey’s opposition parties have for several years now peddled the idea that they would re-establish relations with Assad to solve the country’s decade-long migration question, thus creating an opening to send Syrian migrants back to their country of origin. While the government rejected such ideas initially, growing anti-refugee sentiments, particularly among the low socio-economic communities that make up the bulk of Erdogan’s electoral base, are likely shifting the government’s calculations. An aptly-timed normalization with Assad, coupled with the cosmetics of an accord that would presumably stipulate the return of Syrian migrants, would serve Erdogan favorably in the upcoming elections. Combined with an understanding on pushing back PKK-linked militants in the north of Syria, these developments could potentially create an opening to rebuild a working relationship.

However, the risks of such a process are profound. With the haste of electoral calculations likely leaving little room for a thorough assessment of the situation, Erdogan could be faced with a destabilizing situation rather than an opportunity. Syrian residents in Turkey would oppose such an agreement en masse, leading to potential public unrest and clashes with security forces. Turkey’s Western allies, on the other hand, would find it difficult to acquiesce to the situation. Assad is not simply a pariah in his own neighborhood—he is the subject of American and European sanctions. Turkey’s already complicated relationship with Washington could become the subject of further scrutiny from American officials, particularly if the United States feels that Turkey is acting at the behest of Putin.

While Turkey has indeed orchestrated a delicate sequencing of normalization, Erdogan’s likely rationale, which sees a victory in elections as the ultimate goal, could possibly derail the success of the process. Turkey’s endeavors feel increasingly hasty, uncalculated, and, ultimately, over-ambitious.

Batu Coskun is a political analyst on Turkish affairs. He is a research fellow at the Sadeq Institute.

Image: Reuters.