As Syria’s economic crisis continues to deepen, the nation’s leadership in Damascus is attempting to re-bridge ties with neighboring countries. Last week, the first high-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian representatives occurred, causing speculation about the possible requirements of each side for rapprochement and how quickly this could be followed through on.
Last Thursday, under the supervision of their Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, Syria’s defense minister, Ali Mahmoud Abbas and Turkey’s Hulusi Akar, both met to discuss security issues relevant to their nations. Turkey’s defense minister was recorded as having stated Ankara’s position of respecting Syria’s territorial integrity and swore that the Turkish goal in Syria was to combat terrorist groups in order to protect its borders.
The meeting was significant in that it represented a tangible step towards the normalization of ties between Damascus and Ankara, who became staunch enemies following the eruption of the war in 2011. Recently, despite past differences, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has made the largest effort in the Arab world to re-establish formal ties and continues to send top diplomats to Damascus. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, along with Egypt, are also on the road to normalizing ties with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have made efforts to re-introduce Syria into the Arab League. Yet staunch opposition to normalization of the Syrian government, regionally, has made this a challenge, as the United States government has sought to cripple Syria economically and restrict its access to the region after failing to fulfill its goal of ousting the leadership in Damascus.
Poverty and disease currently plague the Syrian State, which has yet to take control over the following areas of the country: Idlib province, which is occupied by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups; two smaller pockets in the north west and north east that are controlled by Turkish forces and their proxy group known as the Syrian National Army (SNA); north eastern Syria, which is controlled by the US’s Kurdish proxy called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and is also home to US military bases; the al-Tanf area, which is controlled by US paid mercenary forces; and finally the Golan Heights, which is occupied by the Israeli regime. All military operations to recapture Syrian territory have been halted since 2019, largely due to a Turkish incursion into Syria and the pressure of Moscow to halt operations until a later date.
The 2019 ‘Caesar Act’ sanctions, that were introduced by the US Trump administration and later carried on by the Biden administration, have worked to cripple the Syrian economy. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has also been left as a punching bag for the Israeli Air Force, as the SAA has not been authorized to launch any counter actions, beyond air defense, to hundreds of Israeli attacks on their vital infrastructure, since 2018. The Syrian public’s standard of living has dropped dramatically, primarily due to the impact of sanctions. Alena Douhan, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, said in 2022 that “I am struck by the pervasiveness of the human rights and humanitarian impact of the unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria, and the total economic and financial isolation of a country whose people are struggling to rebuild a life with dignity”, calling for the US government to lift its economic sanctions.
This all being recognized, it is important that Damascus find solutions to its economic downfall and begin to get itself on the right track towards reconstructing the country and negotiating solutions to end the conflict that has been in a state of pause for years. Part of ending the conflict and returning the Syrian Arab Republic to somewhat normality, could involve further armed confrontation in order to take back land seized by the nation’s enemies. However, such military action does not look likely in the short term.
Turkey, having backed Syrian opposition groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliates, became a main enemy of the Syrian government during the war. While aiding the fight against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the number one facilitator of weapons flow and foreign militants was Turkey, whether by turning a blind eye to criminal activity along the border or directly backing militant groups. This is why many Syrians who live inside the areas under the governments control, see Ankara as an irredeemable enemy.
Turkey also launched two primary offensives, one in 2018 and one in 2019, capturing the Afrin area in the north of Syria and later a small strip along the Turkish-Syrian border in the north-east of the country. In addition to this, the Turkish military decided to set itself up in the Al-Qaeda affiliate-controlled Idlib area, making it more difficult for the Syrian government and its allies to launch an offensive to retake the area. Putting aside emotional discussions, it is clear that the Syrian military is not capable of overcoming the Turkish military in war, taking out of the equation any Russian or Iranian support they had previously received. It would not be a smart move for either Moscow or Tehran to aide a Syrian war effort against Turkey, not only because of the potential catastrophic consequences for themselves, but also because it is possible that the Turkish military would still see victory.
Although the US government backs the Kurdish-led SDF forces in Syria, when Turkey launches its military operations, Washington completely abandons their Kurdish proxies every time, which is why Ankara so easily took over the areas it currently occupies in Syria. The above mentioned information is why there has to be a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Syria and Turkey, one that seems to be closer now than ever and could be a possibility in the coming year.
The Syrian government has tried countless times to reach agreements with the SDF, yet even when they were abandoned by the US military and left to be picked off by the far superior Turkish armed forces, they still failed to make key concessions and opted to wait for the Americans to return instead. Unfortunately for the Kurdish groups, the PKK and YPG, they have picked enemies with Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, pursuing an agenda of forming a Kurdish State which they seek to annex from all four countries, this means that naturally they floated into the hands of the West. For the SDF, the biggest enemies are their neighbors in the region and not the Western imperialist nations, however, the US is never there to back them when they are in trouble, especially not against a NATO ally like Turkey. So for the SDF, they have cornered themselves and are controlled by the US as a pawn in their global game of chess.
After years of attempting to reconcile with the SDF, the Syrian government may be heading in the direction of labelling the likes of the PKK and YPG as terrorist groups, a stance currently taken by the Turkish government. It is speculated that in return for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria, the re-opening of key routes in the country, and the abandonment of the Al-Qaeda offshoot known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the group in control of Idlib), the Syrian government will be required to repatriate Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as take a stance against the SDF. If this is to happen, it is then a possibility that a joint Syrian-Turkish military campaign into north eastern Syria could commence. At this point, the US would do as it always does, leave the Kurdish groups for dead, which would pave the way for the capturing of the north east. Although the US military bases itself around the al-Omar oil fields, they too will likely be abandoned and the Syrian military has been training for the past year to cross the Euphrates river in order to reach the area. After this, there would have to be further dialogue between Syria and Turkey, over where the borders are settled and tradeoffs between the two. This would likely be the outcome.
Although the future of Syria is uncertain, and it is not yet confirmed that there will be a Damascus-Ankara rapprochement, this would pave the way towards the revival of the nation and finally close this horrendous chapter of the nation’s history that has been the past 12 years of illegal attacks, invasion, and occupation.