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PoliticsMiddle East

As Turkey, Syria thaw ties, unrest may derail reconciliation

July 3, 2024

With anti-Turkish protests in Syria and riots against Syrians in Turkey, violence is casting a shadow on the planned diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries. What role does Russia play?

A protester stands in front a burning Turkish truck
Protests in Syria and Turkey could pose a threat to the ongoing rapprochement between Syria and TurkeyImage: Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, an angry mob burned cars and destroyed stores belonging to Syrian refugees in the central Turkish city of Kayseri, chanting that they "don't want any more Syrians."

In response, demonstrators in the Turkish-controlled area of northwestern Syria launched anti-Turkish protests of their own in the following days, saying they were acting in solidarity with their Syrian compatriots in Turkey. Several people have died in the unrest.

The mob's rage in Turkey wasn't just directed at Syrian refugees, but also against the Syria policy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with calls for the Turkish president to "step down!" They said they no longer accepted Erdogan's long-standing open-door policy for the around 3.5 million Syrians who have escaped to Turkey since Syria's civil war broke out in 2011.

Turkish demonstrators chant slogans against Syrians and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Syria policies
Growing sentiment against Syrians in Turkey has led to protesters lashing out against Syrians living in the countryImage: DHA

Erdogan criticized the riots in Kayseri as "unacceptable." According to media reports, around 470 people were detained.

On a political level, the impact of these riots might have even further implications: the protests and violence could thwart the planned rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments.

The leaders of both countries said recently, in an indirect way, that they wanted to reset their relationship, which has been strained for many years.

Ankara suspended relations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad at the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Throughout the conflict, Erdogan has primarily supported the jihadi groups fighting against the Syrian forces.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, wraps his arms around Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left, seen here in 2011) is now optimistic about rebuilding ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad (right)Image: SANA/AP/picture alliance

But last week, Erdogan said that after 13 years of conflict, he no longer saw any obstacles that could block renewed diplomatic relations with Syria. His remarks came after Assad had also indicated that he wanted to revive relations with Turkey.

Turkey sours on refugees

The government in Ankara has come under massive pressure due to the millions of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. The mood in the country and support for refugees has massively deteriorated in the years since they first arrived.

"Erdogan wants to prevent even more Syrians from coming to Turkey," Andre Bank, an expert on Syria and Turkey at the German GIGA think tank, told DW. "He also wants to ensure that as many Syrians as possible leave Turkey again."

If Erdogan succeeds in concluding a repatriation agreement with Syria, it would mark a major domestic political success for the president.

Refugees aren't the only issue: for years, the Turkish military has been fighting with the Kurdish YPG militia in northeastern Syria. This group is considered to be closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is active in Turkey and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, as well as by the EU.

According to Michael Bauer, head of the German political foundation Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Lebanon, which also monitors developments in Syria, a political shift in Syria's northeast could have been the trigger for the recent negotiations between Syria and Turkey.

"The Syrian Democratic Forces, which are present in the region and are opposed to Assad and the Kurdish self-administration recently declared their intention to hold local elections in the Kurdish-controlled areas," said Bauer.

This plan has not been well-received, especially in Turkey. "Due to international pressure, they have now been postponed until August," said Bauer.

Turkish jets attack Kurdish positions in northeast Syria
Turkey has been fighting with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast for yearsImage: DHA/Demirören Nachrichten Agentur

Syria want to regain control of Idlib

The Syrian regime is also pinning its hopes on the rapprochement.

"Assad's aim is to continue the normalization process with the Arab states," said Bank. This process got underway in May 2023 when Syria was readmitted as an active member of the Arab League. The regime also wants to continue this course with its non-Arab neighbors, Bank added.

A further aim of the Assad regime is to regain control of the Idlib region in the country's northwest, currently controlled by the radical Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is linked to al-Qaeda. As Turkey controls the northern part of Idlib, cooperation between the two states could also be beneficial for Syria.

Armed men drive in the back of a pick up truck during protests against Turkey
Protests against Turkey by Syrians have put a strain on both countries as they try to thaw ties after more than a decadeImage: Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images

This also applies to the Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast, where the regime is keen to expand its presence once again. "An agreement with Turkey would be extremely helpful for this," said Bank.

Moscow aims to expand regional influence

It remains to be seen whether the riots in both countries will have an impact on the planned Syrian-Turkish rapprochement.

Observers said they could be an obstacle to reconciliation, as at least parts of the populations in both countries have expressed harsh mutual dislike. On the other hand, however, they could also accelerate the planned course of rapprochement, as the demands and motives of the demonstrators could be defused through cooperation and both sides could "promote" this as a domestic political success.

Bauer warned, however, that the fact that the first steps toward a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement have already taken place behind the scenes with Russian mediation should be worrying for the Europeans.

Russia is currently doing its best to expand its influence throughout the region, he pointed out. "The EU needs to be aware that Moscow will unconditionally pursue its own interests in Syria and the region," Bauer said, adding that "this will also and especially be at the expense of Europe."

This article was originally written in German and translated by Jennifer Holleis.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas