Thu, 23 Mar 2023

By John SolomouNicosia [Cyprus], January 9 (ANI): In a speech in Ankara last Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he may meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a new peace process, after Turkey's and Syria's Defense Ministers had recently in Moscow the highest-level meeting between officials of the two countries in 11 years.

This was a surprising move after Erdogan's repeated threats that he would launch a new ground operation in Syria against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish groups which Ankara considers 'terrorists' and, also because Turkey, since 2011, has been the main backer of Syria's opposition to the Assad regime and in 2012 severed its diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus.

Following the recent talks between Russian, Turkish and Syrian Defence Ministers and intelligence officials that focussed on resolving the Syrian crisis, Erdogan said the next step would be a meeting of the Foreign ministers of the three countries.

The Turkish President added that depending on developments, "we will come together as leaders", implying his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

The intended rapprochement between Erdogan and Assad could be a major policy shift, and may be seen as a big success for Russian President Vladimir Putin who last year, during a meeting with the Turkish President in Sochi, advised Erdogan to mend ties with Assad.

The meeting could tantamount to Erdogan publicly recognising Bashar al Assad's rule in Syria and will help restore diplomatic, economic and security ties with the regime in Damascus, something that would have been inconceivable a few months ago.

Syrian Opposition says it is 'unthinkable' to consider a future in which Turkey, its biggest supporter, makes peace with the Syrian regime -- its biggest enemy. The forces opposed to Assad insist that he does not represent the Syrian people and vow to continue their struggle until the fall of his regime.

The news about the trilateral meeting of the Defence ministers also raised concerns among the estimated 4 million refugees living in Turkey and people living in the Kurdish and other areas in Syria, which are outside the control of the Assad regime.

These people have good reasons to fear Erdogan as, since the beginning of the war, he ordered the Turkish military to carry out four military operations in northern Syria, mainly targeting Syrian Kurdish fighters of YPG and other groups, who are allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS.

Ankara considers the YPG (People's Protection Units) as a threat to its national security, due to its ties with PKK, a Kurdish group that fights for self-rule in Turkey and which the Turkish and other governments say they are terrorists. The Assad regime is strongly opposed to Kurdish autonomy in one-third of Syria, currently controlled by the Kurds.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price, asked about a potential meeting between Erdogan and Assad, said: "We will not normalise, and we do not support other countries normalizing relations with the Assad regime."But there are questions why Erdogan suddenly changed his long-established policy on Syria and the Assad regime and did not implement his plans to invade northern Syria to punish the YPG and the PKK, as he had said many times, since the deadly explosion in Istanbul last November for which the Turkish government immediately blamed the PKK 'terrorists'.

One reason for this is that Washington warned Ankara against carrying out its planned ground invasion, while Moscow which prevented the fall of the Assad regime and which controls Syrian airspace access, apparently did not give Erdogan the green light for such an operation.

As he didn't want to risk angering both the superpowers with the military option, Erdogan started thinking about other ways of achieving his aims in Syria. He realized that if he sought a political deal with Bashar al-Assad (as Putin had suggested) he could achieve his plans against the YPG, without a military operation that was bound to incur the wrath of the United States.

If Ankara restores its relations with Damascus, Turkish troops could patrol the borders between Turkey and Syria together with Russian troops. It could also demand a commitment from Assad that, in case of any future political settlement, he would never allow the Kurdish YPG to establish an autonomous area near the border with Turkey.

Another reason is that if a deal is reached with Assad, Erdogan could find a solution to the problem of the estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey. The refugee problem is one of the main issues that could determine the elections to be held next June or even earlier in the country. The refugees have become a headache and a political liability for Erdogan in the coming elections.

Opposition parties have vowed to expel refugees from the country, withdraw the Turkish forces from Syria and even pay compensation to Damascus. Apparently, a big section of the Turkish population supports similar views.

Erdogan has vowed to ensure the voluntary return of at least one million Syrian refugees back to their country -- particularly to safe zones in the north of the country. If he really achieves this, it will increase his popularity and improve his chances in the elections.

According to informed sources, he has asked Russia to ensure the safety of Syrian refugees who would return to their country, as fighting in the country abates.

Columnist Ismail Yasa, writing in Middle East Monitor, points out, "Erdogan needs to pull the refugee card from the hands of the opposition, which it exploited in the recent local elections, and must show a desire to solve the refugee problem and secure their return to their country. This does not mean that they will be expelled, though, and handed over to the Syrian regime, with the hell which that implies." (ANI)

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