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[OPINION] Why Bashar al-Assad does not trust Erdoğan

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Despite persistent attempts by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president has repeatedly ignored invitations to meet with him. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also spoke in January about the possibility of meeting with his Syrian counterpart in early February, but the meeting did not materialize. Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged Erdoğan and Assad to resolve their problems through negotiations. However, it seems that Assad is not willing to negotiate with Erdoğan until the Turkish leader withdraws his troops from Syria and stops supporting jihadists there.

Russia supports the Assad regime and has air and naval bases in Syria. NATO member Turkey’s hostile relationship with Assad poses a security risk to Moscow’s military presence in Syria. Therefore, Russia hopes for a more peaceful relationship between Erdoğan and Assad. Erdoğan had established a friendship with Assad, and their families even vacationed together in the Turkish Aegean resort town of Bodrum in 2008. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Erdoğan switched from a close personal friendship with Assad to the kind of hostility that led him to support rebels and jihadists against the Assad regime. The irony is that the jihadist groups and armed Kurdish groups in Syria pose a security threat to Turkey, and the Turkish government should work with Assad to defeat these threats.

Turkey has classified armed Kurdish groups in Syria such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as terrorist organizations. Turkey argues that these groups are the Syrian offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and considers the YPG and PYD to be the greatest security threat along its border with Syria, targeting its military. The PKK launched a rebellion against the Turkish state in 1984 for Kurdish autonomy or independence in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southeastern region. Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, large numbers of PKK fighters have moved to the Kurdish region of Syria. Turkey has sought to prevent Kurdish autonomy along its Syrian border similar to the northern Iraq model. Ankara fears that autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria could join forces and set an example for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

Assad has sought to retake Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, from which Syrian government forces withdrew in 2012. US and key European governments supported Kurdish-led forces in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, but since then-US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the region in October 2019, Turkey has been taking advantage of the power vacuum and planning large-scale operations against the Kurds in the region. Assad does not want Turkey to be an enemy, but he does not trust Erdoğan because of the Turkish leader’s plans to occupy more Syrian territory while supporting jihadists in Syria.

There is much to suggest that Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has supported the jihadists. First, the AKP uses jihadists and other rebel groups against Kurdish armed groups. Second, in 2016, 2018 and 2019, Turkey conducted direct military operations in Syria alongside Turkey-backed Syrian armed opposition groups to prevent the formation of Kurdish autonomous areas controlled by YPG militants. Turkey currently controls the Syrian towns of Afrin, al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn and plans to take the northeastern Syrian towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij from the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Large numbers of Arab and Assyrian fighters can be found in the SDF, but Turkey claims the YPG, PYD and SDF are all offshoots of the PKK. Those towns are west of the Euphrates River and are strategic for Turkey to create a 32-kilometer-deep “safe zone” in northeastern Syria. The Erdoğan government intends to resettle about 1 million Syrian refugees from Turkey in the safe zone. The Assad regime knows that Erdoğan and his forces are not willing to leave Syrian territory but instead plan to stay there permanently.

Assad also knows that Turkey supports the Syrian National Army (SNA), formerly the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and subtly supports Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The al-Qaeda-affiliated group, formerly known as al-Nusra, controls large parts of Syria’s Idlib region. The SNA and HTS were in conflict in northern Syria last October, but when Assad’s forces targeted the HTS, the Turkish-backed rebels supported it against Assad’s forces. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, the Erdoğan government has been accused of allowing jihadists to transit Turkey to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. After the defeat of ISIS in 2019, many jihadists settled in Turkey. According to an International Crisis Group report titled “An Enduring Challenge: ISIS-linked Foreigners in Türkiye,” released Feb. 28, Turkey has deported more than 9,000 foreigners from 102 countries since 2011 but has not deported any ISIS-linked foreigners. In addition, many ISIS members prosecuted in Turkey have been released after short prison sentences, while some are still being smuggled in from northern Syria.

Assad is aware that the Erdoğan government allows jihadists from around the world to use Turkey as a transit country to enter Syria. Journalist Hafez Ahmed wrote an article detailing how the Turkish opposition and journalists revealed how Erdoğan’s AKP supports members of ISIS. Ahmet S. Yayla, an assistant professor at DeSales University and former counterterrorism police chief in Turkey, disputed Çavuşoğlu’s argument in his article in Foreign Policy that Turkey’s actions in northern Syria, rather than contributing to peace in the region, enabled the rise of ISIS in the first place. Assad himself accused Erdoğan of supporting ISIS, as BBC Turkish version reported on January 26, 2016.

Since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s Islamist leader Erdoğan has portrayed himself as the leader of the Islamic world, supporting rebels and harboring jihadists in Idlib. Erdoğan went too far when he threatened Assad with taking Damascus, but even after a decade he has failed to topple the Assad regime. Turkey now hosts more than 4 million Syrian refugees, and Erdoğan has been unable to get a green light from Russia and the United States to attack Kurdish forces in Syria. Erdoğan is currently unable to target anyone because the chaos caused by recent earthquakes is costing the Turkish economy over $100 billion. In this dark time, it is particularly unwise for Erdoğan to continue with his hostility toward the Assad regime. What he needs now is a normalization of relations with the Syrian regime. However, it is unlikely that Assad will forgive Erdoğan, who has the biggest stake in the Syrian conflict, as he is the cause of the death of more than 500,000 Syrians and the destruction and division of Syria.

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