Türkiye Moves to Repair Relations With Syria Amid Pressure to Repatriate Refugees

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Rising public pressure to return some 3.1 million Syrians has renewed Ankara’s efforts for reconciliation.

At the end of June, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that there is no obstacle preventing Türkiye and Syria from restoring diplomatic ties, which were severed after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.

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His comments mirrored those of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad days earlier, suggesting a potential thaw in relations between the neighboring countries.

“There is no reason why (diplomatic ties) should not be established,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul on June 28. Before the war, Erdogan and Assad shared a close relationship.

High-level talks between Ankara and Damascus, held under Russia’s auspices in late 2022, failed to achieve concrete results. However, rising public pressure in Türkiye to return some 3.1 million Syrian refugees has renewed Ankara’s efforts for reconciliation.

“A detente between Türkiye and Syria may lead to an agreement overseeing the mass repatriation of Syrian citizens residing in Türkiye back to Syria. This is only viable through negotiations,” said Batu Coskun, a political analyst at Libya’s Sadeq Institute.

#Press_Statement ????
The vast majority of Syrians look towards the day when #Syria becomes a safe country for their return, the reasons for their displacement are addressed, and their homeland is rebuilt in a way that ensures their #dignity, #security and #freedom.#STJ #Türkiye pic.twitter.com/fDrrlme6Oi

— Syrians for Truth & Justice (@STJ_SYRIA_ENG) July 8, 2024

Recent anti-Syrian riots in Turkish cities, particularly in strongholds of Erdogan’s ruling party, have underscored the urgency of the refugee issue. Efforts to repair ties with Damascus and attacks on Syrian refugees have also led to tensions in Turkish-controlled northern Syria, where over 600,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the past two years.

“The government is likely calculating that anti-migrant sentiments have grown exponentially and are now causing significant societal tension,” Coskun emphasized.

While Türkiye has been praised for hosting millions of Syrian refugees, social and economic tensions have dramatically deteriorated public sentiment in recent years. Coskun highlighted the Ankara government’s urgency in reaching an arrangement for the return of Syrian refugees, though he noted that normalization will likely be a difficult path.

A significant point of contention is the Turkish military presence in northeastern Syria. Damascus demands the withdrawal of Turkish forces as a prerequisite for any rapprochement, while Ankara insists on protecting its national security from threats posed by Syrian Kurdish armed groups, which it labels as terrorist organizations.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Ankara has primarily supported groups fighting against the Syrian government forces. In a recent sign of potential detente, Erdogan suggested he might invite the Russian and Syrian presidents to Türkiye.

It is commented that the social support for Türkiye-Syria normalization varies. While there is some popular support in Türkiye, there are also those who oppose normalization with Syria’s Assad. Moreover, although the actors vary there is little support for normalization in Syria. pic.twitter.com/KfrLmLyF7n

— Turkish Politics ???????? (@TurkishPolitics) July 8, 2024

“We may have an invitation to Putin and Bashar al-Assad. If Putin visits Türkiye, this could mark the beginning of a new process,” Erdogan said on Friday after his return flight from Kazakhstan, where he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and met with Putin.

Oytun Orhan, director of Levant Studies at Ankara’s Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, noted that the Syrian government is also hopeful for rapprochement.

“Al-Assad aims to continue the normalization process with the Arab states and its non-Arab neighbors. With encouragement from Russia and Arab countries, the al-Assad administration seems more willing to rebuild ties with Türkiye,” Orhan said, reminding that in 2023 Syria was readmitted as an active member of the Arab League.

Both analysts highlighted that Russia has been pushing more actively than before on this matter, adding that Iraqi mediation efforts have also made progress in convincing the Syrian government to engage with Türkiye. However, Turkish officials recognize that these efforts will require significant time and will not be easy as long as both parties maintain their current positions. 

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