Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed Friday that he may be willing to talk to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the future, but not to Syrian Kurdish militant groups, which he claimed could have no role in solving the ongoing war.
Amid peace efforts that have already seen Turkey team with its former foes, Russia and Iran, Erdogan’s recognition of the Syrian government in the quest to find a political solution to the six-year conflict would be a major reversal for Turkey, which has backed rebel groups trying to overthrow Assad. As Syrian Kurds, which had received U.S. backing against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), entered talks with Assad and his allies, Erdogan said he could not preclude cooperating with Assad in order to ensure Syrian Kurdish groups he and Assad both considered terrorist organizations would be marginalized.
“Turkey’s issue is not with Kurds, but with terrorist organizations. Whatever happens tomorrow is based on the circumstances. It is not appropriate to have an understanding of saying ‘No way at all.’ The doors of politics are always open until the last moment,” Erdogan said, reflecting on his and Putin’s recent meeting with Assad in Sochi, Russia, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News.
When asked if such relations with Assad, who the Turkish leader said he believed also opposed a Syrian Kurdish militant presence at negotiations “as far as we can see” had already been established, the Turkish leader said there was “no such situation at the moment.”
After Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, expelled Syrian Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998, Syria and Turkey maintained relatively warm relations until 2011 when protests against the younger Assad transformed into armed rebellion against the state. Turkey became an early supporter of efforts to overthrow Assad and helped sponsor the creation of the anti-government Free Syrian Army. Turkey joined Gulf Arab and Western countries in backing insurgent groups as they overran major cities across Syria, but rising jihadi influence began to splinter the opposition and alienate some foreign allies, including the U.S.
The U.S. scaled back and ultimately cut CIA support for rebel groups, instead focusing on a Pentagon program to back the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities. The U.S.’s backing of Syrian Kurdish militant groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), outraged Turkey, which considered them terrorist organizations and part of an ongoing, bloody Kurdish nationalist insurgency at home.
In August 2016, Turkey launched a direct military intervention into Syria on behalf of remaining rebel groups as both the Russia and Iran-backed Syrian military and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds made sweeping gains against ISIS, which had taken about half the country by 2014. In December 2016, the Syrian military retook the former revolutionary hub of Aleppo, considered a significant turning point in the war, which compelled Turkey to join Russia and Iran in peace talks to be hosted in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
While Turkey was a traditional U.S. ally and fellow NATO member, Turkey’s alliances in Syria have at times alienated it from both the U.S. and Russian camps. The Syrian military and Syrian Kurdish forces shared control of the northern Syrian town of Manbij in March to block an oncoming advance of Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels. Nearly pinched out by the two leading foreign powers in Syria, Turkey has increasingly warmed to Moscow’s vision for the war-torn country.
As the Syrian military retook the vast majority of the country, Russia has attempted to carefully balance the competing interests of local and international factions in order to establish a roadmap to peace once ISIS was defeated. Syrian Kurds, who have a troubling history with both Turkey and the Syrian government, have begun talks with Assad in hopes of gaining greater autonomy in their ancestral homelands of northern Syria, where the conflict has allowed them to establish de facto rule.
The Syrian government has both fought with and alongside Syrian Kurds at times throughout the conflict but considered their formal alliance with the U.S. a betrayal. Assad’s administration has declared both the U.S. and Turkey “illegal invaders” because they oppose Assad’s rule and did not coordinate their intervention into the country with Damascus as Russia and Iran did.