Why Asad is spurning Erdogan

Turkey must withdraw its troops if it wants rapprochement with Syria

I was not surprised by reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad has been ‘resisting’ pressure from Russia to hold a summit in Moscow with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He clearly does not want to grant Erdogan a cost-free victory before the presidential and parliamentary elections in six months’ time.

The Syrian president is right to refuse to meet and to resist Russian pressure. His quarrel with Erdogan is not a secondary matter or a media slanging-match. It is much bigger and deeper than that, and cannot be resolved by ‘kissing beards’ on a ‘let bygones be bygone’s basis.

For the past ten years, Erdogan has chosen to wage war on Syria in the context of a US-Israeli scheme to destroy the country. But this doesn’t, and mustn’t, mean he can choose to stop it at a time that suits him and his ambitions and interests without meeting core Syrian demands–above all a complete Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory, plus the payment of reparations by him and his allies, and a clear apology to the Syrian state and people.

Erdogan was deluded when he thought Asad would hurry to Moscow to see him in response to his recent statements expressing his desire to meet. After standing fast for 11 years against a US-led onslaught backed by 65 countries, and funded by hundreds of billions of Gulf petrodollars, the Syrian president is in a position of strength after extricating Syria from the bottleneck despite the horrendous human and material costs.

When Erdogan thought he was in a position of strength, and that regime-change would be achieved in weeks or months, he behaved arrogantly and insultingly towards Asad. He vowed to pray in Damascus’ Omayyad Mosque alongside Syria’s new rulers. But the wizard’s sorcery turned against him. Terrorist bombings have hit the heart of Istanbul, most opinion polls show his and his AK party’s popularity is falling, and Turkey’s five million+ Syrian refugees and its invasion of Syria are set to be key election issues. That is why Erdogan began wooing Damascus and placating Russia in search of a lifeline.

Syria’s rejection of these overtures is justified because Syria’s leaders — like most if not all their Arab counterparts –no longer trust the embattled Turkish president. His record over the past decade is replete with U-turns, broken promises, and back-stabbing not just of rivals but also friends. Isn’t that what he did to the Syrian leadership after it flung the country’s doors open to him and hailed him as a father-figure? Didn’t he abandon the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and close down most of its media outlets as a down-payment for restoring ties with the Egyptian government? Didn’t he freeze the Syrian political opposition’s activities in Turkey? Didn’t he forget his welcoming words and begin forcibly evicting Syrian refugees from Turkish cities or restricting their movement, and shooting any new ones who try crossing into Turkey? Didn’t restore full relations with the Israeli occupation state? There are many other examples.

A bilateral summit between the Syrian and Turkish presidents should only be held after all Turkish forces have been withdrawn from Syria, a regional and international fund has been created for the country’s reconstruction, and the Sochi and Adana agreements on ending the presence of terrorist-designated groups in northwestern Syria (be they Arab, Kurdish, or Turcoman) and safeguarding border security have been implemented.

The Turkish opposition, which has united in an anti-AK front, supports these demands. It is willing to implement them if it comes to office, and restore full ties with Damascus and work towards the safe repatriation of all Syrian refugees. So why should Syria make concessions to Erdogan that could help him and his party retain power for six or seven more years, based on vague promises that may come to nothing if Erdogan wins and regains his strength and authority?

I am well aware that President Putin has influence and leverage over his Syrian counterpart. I also appreciate that as he fights an existential war in Ukraine, he needs to bring his Turkish ‘ally’ on the side, or at least keep it neutral and unthreatening, and avoid any Turkish-Kurdish military conflagration at this stage. But it is also the case that Russia’s international standing is sustained by showing that it stands by its allies and supports their legitimate rights and demands, especially Syria and Iran which stood by it unflinchingly from the outset. Putin should make this a priority and learn from past US failures in this regard.

I have always supported a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement and the turning of a new leaf in relations and still do. I believe in the notion that there are no permanent enmities or hatreds between states and peoples. But reconciliation must have a solid basis. Those who did wrong should apologize, those who destroyed should rebuild what they ruined, and those who occupied should withdraw. Mere beard-kissing is no longer acceptable in the 21st century, especially not in the case of Syria.

Why Asad is spurning Erdogan

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