What are Turkey’s motives behind potential ‘normalized’ ties with Syria?

Experts say Yildirim’s latest statement is triggered by the need to contain terrorism and ensure regional stability

Menekse Tokyay
Menekse Tokyay - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Istanbul - With Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim saying his country will normalize ties with Syria, Ankara has opened another new page in its efforts to mend relations with its neighbors.

“We’ll enlarge the circle of friendship. We’ve already started doing it. We’ve normalized our ties with Israel and Russia. Now I’m sure we’ll normalize ties with Syria. We need it,” Yildirim said on Wednesday, adding that fighting terrorism required stability in Iraq and Syria.

The declared intention to normalize ties with Syria, as well as rapprochement with Israel and Russia, marks a shift in Turkish foreign policy.

Since taking office in May, Yildirim has repeatedly said Turkey needs to “increase its friends and decrease its enemies” in the region.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund, says Yildirim’s statement on Syria is important but should not be exaggerated.

“As Syria is at the crux of Turkey’s tension with both Russia and Iran, Turkey can’t sustainably improve relations with either country unless it changes its existing stance on Syria,” Unluhisarcikli told Al Arabiya English.

“The gains of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party [PYD], which is affiliated with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], in northern Syria makes dialogue with Damascus necessary to prevent a Kurdish statelet along Turkey’s borders, which would be a PKK-land as far as Ankara is concerned.”

Unluhisarcikli says while Turkey has reasons to decrease tensions with Syria, it should not be expected to publicly accept the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Even on Thursday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned there can be no solution to the Syrian conflict while President Bashar al-Assad remains in charge.

Ankara has long been a staunch opponent of Assad, saying he should step down for the sake of Syrian stability.

In line with that stance, Yildirim said on July 4 that oppression and dictatorship in Syria should end as a prerequisite for the normalization of relations with Damascus.

Experts say Yildirim’s latest statement is triggered by the need to contain terrorism and ensure regional stability by cooperating with neighbors.

“Turkey will likely further decrease the profile of its Syria policy and support a political solution, but it will stop short of seeing Assad as Syria’s leader at the end of the process,” Unluhisarcikli said.

Michael Stephens, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, says it is very difficult to envisage a scenario in which warm relations with the Assad regime can be achieved.

“To suddenly indicate support for Assad would greatly damage Turkey’s standing with military groups in northern Syria, and endanger Turkey greatly.

“It would also create the impression that Ankara is a fickle ally, and thereby make it less likely to be trusted in the future,” Stephens told Al Arabiya English.

“Turkey has in recent times forged a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, and warming relations with Assad would put this dynamic under great strain.”

Syrian opposition receives Turkish reassurance: No policy changes with regime

Stephens says it is far more likely that Ankara is seeking a lessening of tensions with Damascus, and looking for options to end the conflict.

He adds that considering Ankara’s recent attempts to reboot its regional relationships, this latest statement might hint at an attempt to reach out to Assad within a larger reset of relations with Moscow, which is ultimately more important.


Bezen Balamir Coskun, an expert on international relations at Izmir’s Gediz University, says Ankara’s previous policy toward the Arab Spring, Russia and Syria has caused isolation for Turkey.

“In such turbulent times isolation isn’t sustainable, so at some point Ankara had to take all rational decisions to reclaim its constructive role in the Middle East,” Coskun told Al Arabiya English.

“Following rapprochement with Russia and Israel, the real challenge for Turkey’s new foreign policy lies in Syria. Ankara has to prove itself a crucial partner in the resolution of the civil war there.

“If the international community agrees on a resolution with the Assad regime, Turkey will normalize its relations with Assad.”

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