Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on July 13 that his country wants to normalize ties with Syria. «I am sure that we will return (our) ties with Syria to normal. We need it», he said in a televised address.
«It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbors that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea», Yildirim noted.
This statement is an about-turn in policy amid a broad diplomatic offensive following the restoration of ties with Russia and Israel.
Ankara cut ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad after a popular uprising erupted in 2011. Throughout the nearly five-year-old war in Syria, Turkey has sided with armed groups fighting the Syrian government. Ankara has insisted that Assad’s departure was a prerequisite for the crisis management. This position has been a major hindrance on the way of cooperating with Russia. It has also distanced Ankara from the US-led coalition more focused on fighting Islamic State.
Turkey, which borders Syria, provides refuge to 2.75 million Syrian refugees. It has served as a base to political representatives of the Syrian opposition and various rebel groups seeking to unseat Assad. The Turkish involvement in the Syrian war has left the country frustrated, with none of its original goals anywhere near realization. Public opinion is split and does not favor direct intervention.
Turkey has become completely isolated not only in its Middle Eastern environment but, in fact, in the international sphere. It lacks reliable friends or allies in the region.
Since taking office in May, Yildirim has tacitly admitted that there was a need for policy change as Turkey needed to «increase its friends and decrease its enemies». «There are not many reasons for us to fight with Iraq, Syria, Egypt and countries in all regions. But there are many reasons to carry relations forward…» the Prime Minister said at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) in the capital Ankara on July 11.
«We will refrain from meaningless and empty discourse. From now on, we will improve our friendships with all countries surrounding the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. We will keep our disagreements at a minimum», he added.
Turkey last month announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel after a six-year rupture and apologized to Russia over the downing of a warplane, in an attempt to mend strained relations. In the last few months of 2015, Turkey has engaged in diplomatic arguments with its neighbor Iraq over its deployment of extra troops to a forward operating base near Mosul. Ankara has also refused to recognize the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as legitimate and denounced the July 2013 military coup, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government. The Prime Minister’s statements imply that many of these policies will change and that Turkey will revert to the pre-2011 «zero problems with neighbors» policy, downplaying its disagreements with regional countries. This could have a major impact on the future trajectory of the conflict.
The policy about-turn opens new prospects for Moscow-Ankara cooperation in Syria. Turkey said on July 4 it wanted to cooperate with Moscow in combating Islamic State.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov believes differences between Moscow and Ankara on the Syrian conflict could ease to have a positive impact on regional issues, as well as contribute to the solution of the Syrian crisis.
Establishing a dialogue between Syria and Turkey could lead to progress in the battle for Aleppo. As Syria’s cease-fire falters, battles for control of Aleppo city and province will play a decisive role in determining the future course of the civil war. As yet another round of talks in Geneva looms on the horizon, the battle for the city is critical to both Syrian government forces and their rebel counterparts. The cooperation could start with Turkey closing off its northwestern border to cut off armed Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra from having any access to the outside world. If Turkey ceases its support for Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahram ash-Sham units, the situation in Aleppo would stabilize to give the UN-sponsored peace efforts a chance. If the cessation of hostilities holds in Aleppo, this process will encompass other areas of the country to make possible a major breakthrough in the crisis management process.
If the relations are mended, Turkey could play a role of mediator between the Russia-supported Syria’s government and the US-led coalition. Turkish Incirlik air base is used by the coalition forces to strike the IS militants.
The normalization of bilateral relations between Syria and Turkey is a game changing development. It will also do away with a major obstacle on the way of boosting cooperation between Russia and Turkey. This will also help Turkey fight more effectively against IS terrorism coming from the Syrian lands.
It is not a coincidence that the terrorist attack on Istanbul Atatürk International Airport – the ninth deadly terrorist attack in Turkey since last summer – came a day after agreements with Israel and Russia were announced. The Islamic State is certainly against such agreements. Its position will significantly weaken in case Turkey revives its ties with the government in Damascus to coordinate its anti-terrorist efforts with Syria and Russia.
Turkey’s move to normalize relations with Syria is timely and based on principles of mutual interest. Turkey, Syria, Russia and the US-led coalition have one common enemy – the Islamic State group. Uniting efforts is the only way to cope with the problem. This fact is confirmed by the visit of the US Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow on July 14-15 to discuss in detail the possibility of the first US-Russia agreement to share intelligence and targeting data for airstrikes in Syria. The changes in Turkey’s foreign policy priorities open new prospects for implementing the decisions of the UN Security Council and ISSG [International Syria Support Group]. The turn of events makes expedient the resumption of stalled Syrian peace talks – something Russia has recently called for.