Sticking points between Syria and Turkey / Michael Jansen
Last week’s meeting in Moscow of the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers appears to have led to the suspension of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to mount a major military operation against US-sponsored Syrian Kurdish forces engaged in the fight against Daesh. Erdogan regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as offshoots of Turkey's Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which has staged an insurgency since 1984.  He blames the YPG for the November 15th bombing which killed six and injured 81 in a pedestrianized market in central Istanbul. The YPG has flatly rejected this charge.

The unannounced meeting between Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas and his Turkish counterpart Hulsi Akar was brokered by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who sought to secure this and other objectives.  Four days before this meeting, Moscow rejected Ankara’s request for permission to carry out military flights over Syria, presumably, in connection with the operation against the YPG which were initially threatened last May long before the deadly Istanbul attack.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the aim of the meeting was to discuss “ways to resolve the Syrian crisis, the problem of [Syrian] refugees, and joint efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria.” There are, however, major differences between Syria and Turkey on these issues. Damascus takes the view that the government of Syria has “won” the 12-year civil and proxy war by re-establishing control over 70 per cent of Syria’s territory.  Ankara insists that the government, headed by Bashar al-Assad, must negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Turkish-backed opposition which has little support in Syria itself. 

Erdogan is eager for the repatriation of a significant proportion of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey because they have become highly unpopular with Turkish voters who are set to cast ballots for president and parliament in June.  Assad has shown little interest in agreeing to the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrians at a time their country is suffering severely from punitive Western sanctions.

Syrians face a lack of fuel, water, and imported medicines, frequent electricity outages, high food prices and cholera.  The sanctions constitute the war crime of collective punishment as they do not seriously impact the country’s rulers but harm the population. 

While the Syrian army has been involved in the fight against remnants of Daesh, which is branded by the international community a “terrorist” group, Turkey's primary focus remains the YPG and the PKK. The US, Turkey's NATO ally, distinguishes between the two and argues that the YPG — which provided the ground forces for the anti-Daesh campaign in Syria — is an essential partner in the effort to eliminate fugitive Daesh fighters. 

The major sticking point between the two remains the occupation by the Turkish army and surrogate Syrian militias of 8,835 square kilometers of Syrian territory containing 1,000 towns and villages and the installation of an anti-government administration in the Turkish-occupied enclaves on the Syrian side of the border.  Ankara also provides protection for al-Qaeda’s offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (originaly Jabhat al-Nusra) which holds and governs Syria’s north-west Idlib province.

Erdogan has revealed that he has asked Syria’s ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin, to press Damascus for a summit with Assad.  But, Assad has refused to meet the Turkish leader as long as his forces occupy Syrian land.  Assad also argues that a well publicized summit would provide a boost ahead of the June election for Erdogan whose popularity has plummeted due to Turkey's economic meltdown.

Although Erdogan has said, “There’s no room for resentment in politics,” Assad has resisted Russian pressure to reconcile with Turkey despite Moscow’s existential support against Turkish-backed insurgents seeking to overthrow Assad.  He has good reasons for “resentment.”

 Shortly after the mid-March 2011 launch of Syrian popular demonstrations calling for reforms, Erdogan castigated Assad for cracking down hard on protests. Although senior Syrian officials told The Gulf Today that Assad was prepared to initiate some reforms demanded by the protesters, Erdogan pre-empted the Syrian leader. In July and August he recruited dissident Syrian army officers into the Free Syrian Army and established the expatriate Muslim Brotherhood-led Syrian National Council. Erdogan’s objective was to topple Assad and install a Muslim Brotherhood-influenced regime allied to Turkey.

This effort has failed as Syrian troops, supported by Russian airpower and Iranian ground forces, have retaken 70 per cent of Syria’s territory. Nevertheless, Ankara continues to back Assad’s opponents and to occupy Syrian territory.

While Syria continues to be isolated and sanctioned by the West, key Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait — have reopened embassies in Damascus. Assad also broke out of isolation by paying his first visit to an Arab country in March when he travelled to the UAE. Determined to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, Algeria has pressed other Arab governments to normalize relations with Syria and end its suspension from the Arab League. 

Due to Turkey's economic meltdown, Erdogan is under political pressure to pull off a distracting diplomatic coup with Syria which could prompt Syrian refugees to go home. While some analysts put inflation at 85.5 per cent in October, other independent analysts argue that annual inflation was an impossible 176 per cent. 

Soaring inflation and the collapse of the country’s currency have plunged millions of Turks to the edge of financial ruin. Factories have closed, farmers and merchants are afflicted with debt, and two-thirds of Turks struggle to pay for food and shelter, according to a survey conducted by Yoneylem Social Research Centre. Skilled workers are leaving the country while the salaries of unskilled laborers cannot keep up with rising prices.

Erdogan has been personally blamed for the dire situation because, instead of raising interest rates to curb inflation, he has insisted on keeping them low. This has gained him the support of the construction and real estate sectors, which fund his Justice and Development Party, and devout conservatives who eschew “interest” as un-Islamic. His policy is, however, at least partly responsible for the crisis and could deny him re-election in the year Turkey will celebrate 100 years of independence as a modern state.

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