“Murderer Assad” and “thief Erdogan”: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have only insulted each other in recent years. But now the Turkish government is preparing new contacts with the Syrian leadership. Pressure from Turkish voters, who are pushing for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees to return home, and demands from Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin are driving President Erdogan to change course.
Erdogan hinted at a rethink after his most recent meeting with Putin on August 5. The Russian President, Assad’s most important partner, had rejected Erdogan’s request to be allowed to send the Turkish army to fight the Kurdish militia YPG in northern Syria. Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group. Putin suggested that the governments of Turkey and Syria should find a solution together in northern Syria, Erdogan said after the meeting. Talks between the secret services of both countries have been going on for some time, but Erdogan has so far rejected political contacts.
Erdogan was once friends with Assad and even spent his holidays with him. But when Assad had demonstrators shot in 2011, Erdogan broke away from him in the hope of being able to install a regime loyal to Turkey in Damascus. To this day, Turkey supports rebel groups who want to overthrow Assad. At the same time, however, Erdogan is cooperating with Putin, who has the military say in Syria. In doing so, he wants to keep the possibility of taking action against the YPG open.
Shortly after Erdogan’s meeting with Putin, the pro-government Turkish newspaper Türkiye reported that a Gulf state and an Islamic government in Africa wanted to broker a talk between Erdogan and Assad. Ankara does not believe the time is right for this, but a phone call between the two presidents is possible in the future. Erdogan’s government hinted that there are more contacts between Ankara and Damascus than previously known. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he spoke briefly with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad at a conference in Belgrade last year.
Erdogan’s government wants to prepare the public for the change of course, says journalist and foreign policy expert Fehim Tastekin. Erdogan demands something in return for a handshake with Assad, Tastekin wrote in an analysis for the news portal Duvar. The Syrian government should smash the Kurdish self-government under the YPG, work with moderate opposition groups, allow Syrian refugees to return home from Turkey and involve Turkish construction companies in the reconstruction of Syria. Assad only wants to talk to Erdogan’s government when Turkey withdraws its troops from northern Syria.
The opposition in Syria, which is supported by Ankara, is appalled. Assad’s fall must remain the common goal, said the umbrella organization SNC. After Cavusoglu’s appeal for an agreement between Assad opponents and the government, anti-Turkish protests broke out in Turkish-occupied parts of northern Syria.
For Erdogan, his own election chances are more important than the objections of the Syrian opposition. Before the presidential and parliamentary elections next year, the refugee issue is the most important issue for voters alongside the economic crisis. The Turkish president is doing poorly on both issues. According to data from the MetroPoll survey institute, 82 percent of Turks are calling for the 3.7 million Syrians to return to their home country.
If Turkey wants the refugees to return, it cannot avoid talks with Assad’s government, Ömer Önhon, the last Turkish ambassador in Damascus, told Halk-TV. The left-wing nationalist CHP, the largest opposition party, promises to solve the refugee problem by talking to Assad.