Turkey tries to reassure Syrian opposition after overtures to Damascus

“The Syrian opposition is a powerful chip for Turkey to play in the diplomatic game with Russia and the Assad government.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday met with Syrian opposition leaders (Photo: Turkish Foreign Ministry)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday met with Syrian opposition leaders (Photo: Turkish Foreign Ministry)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Tuesday met with leaders of the Syrian opposition to discuss the recent overtures to Damascus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with Salem al Meslet, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Badr Jamous, head of the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and Abdulrahman Mustafa, prime minister of the provisional government.

“In the meeting, the recent developments regarding Syria were addressed and our support for the Syrian Opposition and the Syrian people in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 was reiterated,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The defence ministers and intelligence chiefs of Turkey, Russia and the Syrian government met in Moscow on Dec  28 after a Russian initiative to restore ties between Syria and Turkey that were damaged during the civil war.

Turkey supported the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels during the Syrian civil war. But Turkey also opposed Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Now Turkey might make a deal with Damascus on Syrian Kurds.

“The Syrian opposition is a powerful chip for Turkey to play in the diplomatic game with Russia and the Assad government. Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces are a full proxy of Ankara, and they continue to exist at the sufferance of the Turkish government,” Nick Heras of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy told Kurdistan 24.

“If Ankara values a military campaign against the Syrian Kurds more than it values maintaining a Syrian rebel proxy force, Turkey will make the exchange,” he added.

Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, told Kurdistan 24 that Cavusoglu’s promises to consult with the Syrian opposition before meeting with Assad’s regime “should be taken with a grain of salt, or why not a spoonful of the stuff.” 

“Turkey will try to keep Syrian opposition representatives on board as an asset, but it seems completely implausible that the Turkish state, or Erdogan’s government, would allow their higher-order interests to be governed by client groups like the National Coalition or its shadow government. That would be the tail wagging the dog.”

Moreover, he said evidence shows that Turkey clearly did not consult the opposition about the December 28 defense minister meeting in Moscow. “The opposition has been in an uproar ever since.”

Read More: Hundreds of Syrians protest signs of Damascus-Ankara thaw

Thousands of Syrians in the rebel-held north protested the Moscow defense meeting.

“I don’t think an Erdogan-led Turkey would simply spin around and order mass deportations, or round up Syrian activists for Assad’s torture dungeons. Should relations with Damascus progress, the Turkish government may well move to gag the opposition and perhaps close a few media channels,” Lund said.

“But ties to the regime in Damascus will remain tense and troublesome even if the talks go well, and the opposition remains a valuable card for Turkey to play in that relationship. Turkey also seems intent on staying in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, and that means it can’t afford to completely antagonize its local clients.”

Cavusoglu reportedly told reporters that Turkey would not compromise with Damascus and forcibly send Syrian refugees back to Syria.

"It is out of the question. Certainly, there may be returns, but they will be safe and dignified and returnees should be provided with the necessary means. Therefore, engaging the United Nations in this process is crucial. European Union countries affected by migration should also be engaged in this process," he said, according to the Turkish-state backed Daily Sabah.

Moreover, according to Lund, although regional politics can be cruel and cynical, “I don’t think one can entirely ignore the emotional purchase that Syria still has for many people within the Turkish ruling elite.”

“The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government’s leaders, spooks, and diplomats still don’t like Assad, and they still feel that the opposition’s cause was basically just. If it were up to them, Assad would be dangling from a rope in Marjeh Square right now and their Syrian opposition partners would be in power.”

Read More: Turkish, Russian Foreign Ministers discuss new meeting with Syrian counterpart

“As it happened, things turned out rather differently and Turkey has adapted accordingly—but people are people, with emotions and passions, even when they hold great power.” 

However, he said that also goes for the Syrian side. “Many of Assad’s loyalists genuinely hate and fear Erdogan’s regime and will likely remain deeply suspicious of its intentions.”

“But who knows what the future holds. Should Erdogan lose power, or if Turkey sinks into internal turmoil after the elections, he or his successor may at some point start to see things differently.”

Sierwan Najmaldin Karim, President of the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI), said the main concern during the June 2023 elections is about the large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. 

“The Turkish opposition vowed to normalize the relations with Assad and 'return' the Syrians. President Erdogan attempts to prove to constituents that he has plans for Syrian refugees.”

The tolerant refugee policy of Erdogan's ruling AKP was seen as one of the reasons it lost the cities of Istanbul and Ankara in the March 2019 local elections to the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP) opposition. 

“Second, in reality, the Turkish government and President Erdogan have sold the Syrian opposition on many occasions since 2016, allowing the Assad regime to reoccupy many areas controlled by Turkish-backed groups.”

“That said, today, Turkish backing of radical groups such as al Qaeda's offshoot, the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, and others will hinder normalization with the Syrian regime, given that many of these groups might become a threat to Turkey. We all remember America's support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against Russia and how it backfired,” he added. 

In addition, he said the Assad regime does not want the return of millions of Syrian that pushed them out of the country in the first place. “The only point that makes the normalization possible between the Assad regime and the Turkish government is the animosity toward the Kurds, where both sides agree on changing the demography of the Kurdish areas.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council in a statement on Dec. 30 said it looks with suspicion at the meeting between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers.

“We condemn in the strongest terms the continued shedding of Syrian blood for the elections of the Justice and Development Government, as supporting the authoritarian power in Damascus.”