Turkey's Erdogan softening Syria rhetoric with eye toward upcoming election

A faltering economy has forced Ankara to improve relations with other countries.

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the parliament, last month. (photo credit: PRESIDENTiAL PRESS OFFICE/REUTERS)
TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the parliament, last month.

Turkey’s upcoming 2023 elections, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to face his toughest challenge yet at remaining in power, are pushing him toward a less confrontational foreign policy, analysts told The Media Line. 

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Erdogan, which for years supported Sunni rebels when it looked like the Shiite-dominated Assad regime might fall, hinted at a major policy shift last week when he said he was open to diplomacy with Damascus, amid Ankara’s efforts to warm ties with both rivals and with allies that have been disgruntled by his past courtship of anti-Western regimes. 

The Turkish president told journalists that his country needed “to secure further steps with Syria.” Ankara is not committed to the defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said. 

Earlier in the week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey respects Syria’s territorial integrity and that it wants the opposition to reconcile with the regime. 

“We say that this reconciliation is essential for lasting peace and stability in Syria,” he said. 

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference during the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 14, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool/File Photo)Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan holds a news conference during the NATO summit at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool/File Photo)

Omer Ozkizilcik

Omer Ozkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara, told The Media Line that he believes Erdogan’s statements are simply rhetoric.

Restoring ties between Assad and Erdogan does not make sense for either leader politically, he said.

For relations to be restored, Erdogan would have to get Turkish-backed opposition forces to lay down their arms, leading to millions more refugees fleeing to Turkey, Ozkizilcik said.

At the same time, Erdogan wants the 3.7 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey to return due to the rising discontent of Turkish citizens with their prescience, which has put major pressure on him ahead of the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections.

“The Assad regime knows if these people come back to Syria, then within a period of one year there would be new demonstrations,” Ozkizilcik said. “It would be an existential threat to the Assad regime.”

Erdogan’s comments are meant to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Assad and wants both leaders to cooperate, he argues.

Erdogan has said in recent months that his country would launch a new offensive in Syria to fight Kurdish militants in areas where Russia has had a strong presence, but that would require permission from Moscow.

Ozkizilcik said Erdogan could soon go back to Putin with a stronger hand, claiming that cooperation with Assad failed and that the Turkish military must go into Syria.

Raising the possibility of cooperating with the Assad regime could also help Erdogan combat the popularity of opposition leaders at home, several of whom are leading him in polls.

That is due in large part to their promises to send Syrian refugees back home.

Amid Turkey’s economic crisis, which has seen skyrocketing food and housing prices as the official inflation rate nears 80%, with the real rate is much higher, some citizens have focused their anger on the refugee population, which is blamed for taking lower wage jobs, pushing salaries down.

The main opposition party, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been saying since 2018 that it is willing to enter into diplomatic talks with the Syrian regime.

The leader of the party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is considered most likely to lead a coalition of opposition parties that polls suggest will beat Erdogan’s coalition, which currently has a parliamentary majority.

The parliamentary and presidential elections must take place by June 2023; on Friday, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the presidential election will not be held early and will be conducted on June 18. The parliamentary election is expected to be held at the same time.

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the RANE Network, agreed that the upcoming votes have led the Turkish president to seek to avoid disagreements with other countries.

“At the moment, Erdogan does not want to lead Turkey into confrontations with neighbors unless it’s absolutely necessary because it’s clear that domestically that no longer gives the political returns he needs” ahead of new elections, Bohl told The Media Line.

The Turkish president has been trying to thaw relations with other countries in order to attract foreign investment and support the country’s battered economy.

One of those countries is Egypt, which Erdogan had been at ideological odds with for years.

While the Egyptian government has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement, Erdogan was supportive of the group and thousands of its members fled to Turkey.

However last year, an Istanbul-based Egyptian opposition television channel with links to the Muslim Brotherhood said that Turkish officials requested it decrease its criticism of the Egyptian government.

“Erdogan recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood is also no longer a viable ideological project across the region, which is helping facilitate ties with Egypt,” Bohl said.

Last week, Erdogan stated he wanted relations with Cairo to reach “the highest level” beyond ministerial contact.

Ozkizilcik said Erdogan’s interests in warming ties with Egypt and Israel goes beyond his reelection concerns and has been impacted by a changing geopolitical landscape in which the US is less active in the Middle East, leading countries to seek to decrease tensions on their own and find ways to cooperate with each other.

If relations with Egypt are normalized, that could benefit Turkey’s ties with other countries as well, Ozkizilcik said.

“If this happens, then the next step will be for Turkey to negotiate with Israel and … Egypt [on] energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said.

Israel and Egypt are cooperating in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, along with Turkish rivals Greece and Cyprus and other nations, while Ankara has been left out.

Erdogan has in turn aggressively sought to take control of natural gas recently discovered near Cyprus.

However, analysts believe Turkey would be open to cooperation on energy and the gas forum has led to Erdogan feeling boxed-in in the region.

Turkish officials repeatedly expressed an interest in working with Israel on energy in the months leading up to last week’s announcement that the two countries were restoring full diplomatic relations, including reinstating ambassadors, after a dispute in 2018.

“At the end of the day, Erdogan is looking out for his own political fortune which is no longer served by confrontation abroad,” Bohl said.