As the Syrian civil war grinds to an end, the government in Damascus, propped up by Iran and Russia, is regaining its footing, with important implications for the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria’s neighbors and powers outside the region are now attempting to determine the appropriate level of engagement, if any, to have with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. While Assad’s main foreign patrons will no doubt continue to deepen their military, political and economic ties, it is countries that stood against him over the past seven years that now have the most difficult decisions to make. If recent trends are any indication, it seems many of them are increasingly leaning toward at least some sort of engagement. The question is how to do this in a face-saving manner that doesn’t weaken their diplomatic and political standing, particularly after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria.
Nowhere is this calculus more evident than in Turkey. After throwing its full support behind Syrian rebels, calling Assad a “coward” and vowing to “pray at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus” following his overthrow, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be moving instead toward a gradual détente with his neighbor. Turkey and Syria have been sending signals back-and-forth in a form of tacit negotiations for several months now. Speaking at a conference in December, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, declared that Ankara would work with Assad if he were to win a “democratic election” in Syria. For their part, Syrian authorities raised the prospect of re-activating the 1998 Adana Agreement—a dormant security pact between Damascus and Ankara to counter Kurdish separatists in Syria—if Ankara withdrew its forces from northern Syria and allowed the Syrian army to regain control of Idlib province, the last remaining opposition enclave.
None of this means Ankara has to make a deal with Assad in the short term. Turkey does have some options on the table, including working with the U.S. to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria that would provide Ankara with the buffer it needs to keep the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, at bay, although Washington and Ankara continue to disagree over the fine print of the Turkish role in the area. But taking the longer view, it’s hard to see how Ankara can deal with Syria’s Kurdish militants without coordinating with Damascus. As a case in point, Erdogan recently admitted that Turkish security agencies continue to have direct back channels to their Syrian counterparts. The Turkish government downplays the importance of these contacts, but they may offer the stepping stone toward eventual political rapprochement. And if Turkey chooses to dig in its heels in northern Syria without eventually coordinating with Assad, then the Kurds will surely further gravitate back to Assad’s orbit. Either way, it’s a win-win scenario for the Syrian regime that would boost and solidify its postwar standing.