By Theo Mitchell
After a decade of enmity, the end of 2022 saw a sudden move towards rapprochement between Syria and Turkey. For Turkish President Erdogan, normalisation with Syria serves three important goals for his leadership, particularly with difficult elections coming up in 2023. These are the eventual withdrawal of Turkish troops from their increasingly unpopular entanglement in Syria, the return of the large population of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and the destruction of the Kurdish-led revolutionary polity in Syria’s North-East, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its military force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The question of Turkish-Syrian rapprochement thus has critical consequences for the Kurdish question in Syria. If reconciliation is successful, Turkish leaders will push for a two-fronted assault on the AANES. Failing that, the threat of normalisation acts to pressure the US to accept a Turkish-occupied territory across the whole Turkey-Syria border. In either event, following the events of Operations Olive Branch in 2018 and Peace Spring in 2019, either scenario would also result in the ethnic cleansing of North-East Syria’s Kurdish population1.
The potential for such rapprochement to shift the Syrian conflict decisively in Turkey’s favour has drawn great excitement from the Turkish media and from pro-Turkey lobbyists and analysts despite the lack of progress emerging from the talks so far. Evidently, there is a lot at stake, and the Turkish government and its allies see normalisation with Assad as a key step towards crushing Kurdish autonomy in North-East Syria. The questions this article will aim to answer are therefore: how likely is rapprochement to succeed? Could the threat of normalisation force the US’s hand in favour of Turkey? Finally, if a deal were to be reached, would it destroy the gains achieved by Syria’s Kurds in the Rojava Revolution?
Can Turkey and Syria Reach a Major Agreement?
The principal question to answer is whether Turkey-Syria normalisation talks are likely to succeed to begin with. Erdogan and Assad have shared interests-the destruction of the AANES and the marginalisation of the Syrian Kurds. Nevertheless, there are both significant strategic divides between the two sides along with practical difficulties in implementing any major deal. Though the timing of Turkey’s diplomatic shift is linked to the country’s upcoming elections, the heightened pressure on Erdogan and the reduced time-scale in which to make visible gains from the deal simultaneously creates more difficulty.
The first issue involves that of territory and refugee flow. Turkish public opinion, turning against the presence of Syrian refugees has led to the settlement of Syrians into Turkish-occupied territory-a key aspect of Turkish strategy in Syria. This fills a dual purpose for Ankara of both getting rid of politically troublesome refugees and imposing new demographics on previously Kurdish lands. This, however, requires physical territory outright occupied by Turkey as most of these refugees, fearing the regime’s persecution and having better economic opportunities in Turkey, have little intention of re-settling in areas controlled by the Syrian government. Simultaneously, Syria has little reason to make a deal with Turkey which does not involve reclaiming control over the whole country, particularly the strategic oil- and grain-producing areas. Most of the latter-and part of the former-are in areas with large Kurdish populations and are within the border region that Turkey seeks to occupy and ethnically cleanse. Here is the first major contradiction of Turkish-Syrian normalisation. Syria has no incentive to normalise relations with Turkey if such a situation involves Turkey occupying Syria’s most valuable land, yet Turkish control over the border region is vital to the latter’s broader ambitions in Syria. Neither side is likely to back down here. After all, the Syrian government has no love for the AANES, but the latter still operates within the framework of a sovereign Syrian state and has expressed willingness to compromise in the past. The Syrian government has appreciable leverage over the AANES. The lack of infrastructure in the Syrian north-east means that energy production is reliant on oil refineries in government-held areas, without which the AANES cannot produce its own energy. If Syria does not achieve a total reconsolidation of its territory there is nothing to gain from trading a weak, dependent semi-adversary in its north-east for a vastly stronger, independent one.
The second part of this contradiction derives from the fate of the remaining rebel groups, the SNA and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (the rebels in Al-Tanf would remain under US protection no matter what). Leaving the rebels to their fate is not the issue (neither is militarily strong enough to survive alone and the Turkish public has no love for either the SNA or HTS). The sticking point here comes, again, from refugees. Both the Turkish-occupied areas and Idlib are home to millions of internally displaced people who have fled the regime. The Turkish government knows if Idlib and SNA-held areas were to fall, these people would flee en masse towards the Turkish border, causing the biggest refugee crisis Turkey has faced since 2011. Added to this would be the security threat of potentially vengeful, betrayed Salafi-Jihadists filtering into Turkey with the mass of people. Denying such a huge number of people entry to Turkey by force would be practically impossible without resorting to measures so brutal that Turkey’s western allies, already opposed to Turkish-Syrian normalisation, would not tolerate it. Now imagine all this in the months coming up to the toughest elections in Erdogan’s political life.
Overall, the gap between Syrian and Turkish (or more accurately, Erdogan’s) strategic needs are unbridgeable. Turkey cannot leave HTS and the SNA to their fate, yet Syria has no incentive to engage in normalisation if Turkey is to continue protecting militant, ideologically extreme rebel groups in its own borders. Normalisation along the lines desired by Turkey is extremely unlikely.
The International Factor
Added on to this is the international aspect of such an agreement, and the role the US would play in making or breaking a major deal between Ankara and Damascus. The US is currently prohibiting Turkey (and the Syrian Government) from launching offensives anywhere East of the Euphrates or in Manbij. The Biden Administration has an interest in restoring its influence in areas given up to the Russians during the 2019 partial withdrawal, as evidenced by its return to the countryside of Kobane and Raqqa. Pro-Turkish analysts Doran and Özkizilcik argue Turkish-Syrian normalisation would relegate the US to “observer status”, watching from the sidelines as Syria, Turkey, and Russia effectively force a US withdrawal. This does not stand up to scrutiny. It is already known the US is willing to defend its influence over the North-East militarily, as seen in the 2018 Kasham engagement when American airpower destroyed an attempted push across the Euphrates by pro-government militias and Russian Wagner mercenaries.
Though facing off against Turkey militarily is a different question, neither side has any interest in a confrontation. In all of Turkey’s forays into Syrian territory since 2011, it never acted without the approval of the relevant power broker. Operation Euphrates Shield had the support of both the Americans and Russians, in Operation Olive Branch it had Russian support (the US had no interests in Afrin and was unconcerned with its fate), and in Operation Peace Spring the US gave an explicit greenlight to Erdogan. Even then, the scope of Operation Peace Spring was later limited by a Russian-enforced ceasefire. Washington has leverage outside of its military strength because of Ankara’s economic reliance on American largesse and its military’s reliance on American-produced equipment and parts. Turkey cannot afford to move against the US and Erdogan is evidently aware of this.
Overall, nothing about a Turkey-Syria deal would forcibly relegate the US to ‘observer status’ as neither would have the ability to dislodge the Americans from North East Syria. The two reasons American strategists support remaining in the region-to prevent the recuperation of the Islamic state and to check Iranian influence in the Levant-would be exacerbated rather than lessened by Turkish-Syrian normalisation.
Will the Threat of Normalisation Force the US’s Hand?
An alternative outcome posed by Doran and Özkizilcik in the aforementioned article is that the threat of normalisation would encourage the US to pre-empt being left out of developments and shift against the AANES in favour of Turkey. This would, they say, reinforce the important US-Turkey strategic relationship by removing its principal point of contention while further marginalising the Syrian government and, by extension, Iran and Russia.
Turkey is undoubtedly an important asset to American global power, but Doran’s and Özkizilcik’s paper ignores the actual strategic rationale for the US-SDF partnership.
The YPG was never the US’s first choice to be its principal anti-IS partner. As detailed by Knights and van Wilgenburg in their book on the matter2, the US spent multiple years and over $500 million to train a Sunni Arab force to counter both IS and the Syrian government, but this failed to achieve any results. In an environment of growing domestic insecurity in the US as well as its European and Middle Eastern allies, pressure was mounting to intervene against IS. The YPG was judged as the sole competent force in a position to do so. Turkey had attempted to engineer its own Syrian Kurdish force, the Rojava Peshmerga, but the group was never large or popular enough to be a viable replacement for the YPG’s strength. This, combined with the growing perception among American officials and intelligence that Turkey was at best ambivalent and at worst outright supportive of IS and other Salafi-Jihadist militias, has maintained the SDF’s importance until now. Support for the SDF is now entrenched in not just Biden’s Presidency but at every level in the American foreign policy apparatus, particularly in the Pentagon, as well as through senior advisors on Middle Eastern policy such as Brett McGurk. Likewise, the current leading figures of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Michael McCaul and Gregory Meeks, have both committed to preventing a Turkish invasion of the AANES
The American state has historically had no qualms about abandoning Kurdish partners, but for the US to shift from the AANES to Turkey, the latter has to prove it is willing and able to control occupied areas such that the Islamic State’s organisational capacity remains minimal. The claim that Turkey would be willing and able to effectively counter the Islamic State in the whole of North East Syria is doubtful considering former Islamic State fighters feature heavily in the ranks of the SNA and two of the last three IS Caliphs were killed in territory under Turkish protection. Even if Turkey genuinely wanted to quash IS, the SNA militias under its command are so fragmented, weak, and often ideologically radical that the Islamic State would be free to operate, regardless. As well as the security weaknesses of the SNA, the complete lack of governance in SNA-held areas will further dissuade the US from viewing them as a serious replacement for the AANES. The SIG has theoretical control over the governance of Turkish-occupied areas but it has no practical control. Governance (or the lack of it) is actually carried out by the SNA and local politicians under the functional control of different militias. These two factors combined have led to the SNA (not to mention Turkey) becoming deeply unpopular throughout Syria. By contrast, the AANES, for its flaws, has a degree of popular legitimacy enjoyed by no other Syrian actor. To remedy this discrepancy would require a massive, long-term Turkish ground presence which would be extremely unpopular domestically and costly in money and blood.
To summarise, there is no reason to believe the SNA could be a viable alternative to the SDF in fulfilling US strategic imperatives in Syria, and so there is no reason to believe the US will suddenly change strategy. Even if Erdogan were to lose power and Turkey were to draw closer to the west, the combination of the SNA’s structural weakness combined with Turkish domestic politics means it is extremely unlikely the AANES will face an existential threat in the next year.
- Schmidinger, T. (2019). The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in the Afrin Region of Rojava. Oakland, CA, PM Press;
- McClure, T., and Steinhardt, N. (2020). The Impact of Turkey’s 2019 Invasion on North and East Syria. in Schmidinger, T. (eds). The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. London, London Transnational Press.
- Knights, M., and van Wilgenburg, W. (2021). Accidental Allies: The U.S.-Syrian Democratic Forces Partnership Against the Islamic State. London, I.B. Tauris