Turkey's defense and intelligence ministers met with their Syrian counterparts in Moscow late last month, in the first high-level meeting between the two governments since 2011. Now there are expectations that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet soon with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a once-unthinkable scenario given the past decade of support from Turkey for rebel groups trying to oust Assad.
After so many years of devastating civil war in Syria, during which Turkey openly backed Syrian opposition groups and seized control militarily of areas in northwestern Syria along the Turkish border, it is easy to forget that Erdogan and Assad were friendly diplomatic partners in the pre-war days of the mid-2000s. When Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, after Assad's regime crushed a popular uprising, Ankara and Damascus essentially entered a state of war that brought an abrupt end to their growing economic and political ties and to Turkey's dreams of a more integrated region. Erdogan quickly pivoted, eager to capitalize on what he believed would be a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented political order in a post-Baathist Syria, as Turkey became the main sponsor of the Islamist militias fighting Assad's government.
That support enhanced Turkey's position promoting itself as the main defender of Sunni Islamist causes and movements—not only in Syria but also across the wider Arab region. But for several years now, Turkey has contended with the reality of Assad maintaining power, after his regime retook key territory across Syria with the aid of Russia and Iran. As such, Ankara's relationship with Damascus has been gradually thawing, while Erdogan's focus in Syria has shifted from regime change to fighting the Peoples' Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia that became a U.S. partner on the ground in northern Syria against the Islamic State. The Turkish government regards the YPG as a terrorist group, given its close ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Turkish officials have made frequent threats over the past year of imminent new military offensives into northern Syria to target Kurdish forces along the border—incursions that may get the green or red light from Moscow.
"It seems unlikely that Turkey would withdraw from Syria even if there is some measure of rapprochement with the Assad government. As long as the Turks plan to remain involved, they will need local client forces to work through."
- Aron Lund
While the remaining Syrian rebel groups vow to never surrender to nor negotiate with the Assad regime, they also loathe the idea of Ankara reconciling with Damascus. Assad's enemies in Idlib, the last remaining rebel-held stronghold in Syria, see the thaw in relations as a Turkish betrayal. Yahya al-Aridi, a Paris-based member of the Syrian opposition, recently called Ankara's "unbelievable shift" toward Damascus a "disappointment, especially with the [Assad] regime in such a hectic situation economically, socially, internationally, politically and morally."
Beyond the blow to their morale, where would rapprochement between Turkey and Syria leave the Syrian opposition? Given the arms, money and political support Turkey has provided these forces since the civil war's earliest days, such a change in Ankara's foreign policy could have dire consequences for the rebels still fighting on the ground. Yet regardless of what may transpire in a Turkish-Syrian detente, the anti-Assad militias in Idlib could continue operating in Turkey's service for the time being, if not indefinitely, according to Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International.
"It seems unlikely that Turkey would withdraw from Syria even if there is some measure of rapprochement with the Assad government," Lund said. "As long as the Turks plan to remain involved, they will need local client forces to work through. But these groups will need to abandon any lingering illusions and make themselves comfortable in their role as Turkey's proxy border guard. Whatever they may have promised their Syrian constituents, they're not going to Damascus anytime soon."
Ankara will leverage its "military presence and its support to factions as bargaining cards against Damascus," said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian journalist and the senior diplomatic editor for Syrian affairs at London-based Asharq Al-Awsat. "It will not abandon them at the early stages of negotiations."
It may also be too early to conclude that Turkey is on the verge of completely cutting off ties with Muslim Brotherhood-linked entities all over the region, especially those that Erdogan's government views as useful clients. Although a potential Turkish-Syrian rapprochement is "obviously a worrying development" for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, "for most other branches, it doesn't seem like it would be that big of a deal, even if most won't like it," Lund said. "It's worth recalling that the Erdogan and Assad governments had warm and friendly ties before 2011, as did Assad's government and Hamas, to the great dismay of the Brotherhood's Syrian affiliate. There's always been a lot of pragmatism on all sides, across ideological divides."
All this comes within the context of Turkey mending fences over the past two years with the countries in the region most aligned against the Muslim Brotherhood: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Erdogan is no longer positioning his government, and himself, as the outright state patron of Sunni Islamist groups across the Arab world, given shifts and realignments in the region, from Syria to Libya.
"Certainly, Syrian opposition figures are counting on Turkey to negotiate with the Syrian government on their behalf."
- Ibrahim Hamidi
"The Muslim Brotherhood's existence and longevity is not dependent solely on Turkey, although Turkish support has been essential for the movement over the last decade at least," said Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC. "On the other hand, Turkey's rapprochement with Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will impact the Muslim Brotherhood's operations and ease of movement. In fact, Turkey has already restricted the movement on its territory and cut down on overt support. As for potential reconciliation with Damascus, the Syrian branch of the movement will likely feel squeezed out."
If Turkey and Syria restore diplomatic relations, it is unlikely that another government in the region would replace Turkey as the Brotherhood's main state sponsor. The Islamist movement's various franchises will "definitely feel betrayed by Erdogan, who has advertised himself as the protector of Islamist movements in the MENA region for a while," Harb said. "By extension, Qatar is not likely to 'pick up the slack' because it has its own worries to address if it again is seen as the Muslim Brotherhood's benefactor."
Turkey and Qatar will probably still continue to function as the most Brotherhood-friendly countries in the region, even if they cease to promote the Islamist movement as they did in the initial years following the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Lund suspects that Turkey and Qatar will "likely remain" their "primary state supporters" even if Brotherhood affiliates find themselves under pressure to curtail their activism to avoid complicating Ankara's new foreign policy.
Meanwhile, if Turkey is really engaging with Syria in another vaguely defined peace process, mediated by Russia, how will Erdogan negotiate the terms of a rapprochement with Assad? In late March 2011, shortly after protests erupted in Syria but before ties between Erdogan and Assad collapsed, the Turkish government advocated for reforms in Damascus, pushing for a more inclusive Syrian government that brought in some opposition members and even representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan himself publicly urged Assad to "give a positive answer to the people's demands" following two phone calls with Syria's president (these were the days when official Turkish government statements referred to Syria as a "friend and brother").
Could Erdogan still be planning to push this agenda in talks with Assad? "Certainly, Syrian opposition figures are counting on Turkey to negotiate with the Syrian government on their behalf," said Hamidi.