Before the conflict in Syria started, Turkey cultivated close ties to the Assad regime. The two countries lifted visa requirements, held joint military exercises and cabinet meetings, and collaborated against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). Ankara’s newly-adopted philosophy, “zero problems with neighbors,” had—at the time—won praise both at home and abroad. Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of the policy, at one point described Turkey’s Syria policy as a “striking example” of the success of Ankara’s new foreign policy vision. But the conflict in Syria changed all that. Once a success story in Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Syria is now Ankara’s biggest foreign policy headache, and Davutoglu has long become an outcast in government circles.
The conflict in Syria forced a U-turn in Ankara’s Syria policy six years ago. Turkey burned all bridges with the regime and became one of the main patrons of the opposition to Assad. But after years of supporting the opposition, Turkey failed to steer the conflict toward the trajectory it wanted. Instead, Turkey has 3 million refugees residing within its borders and faces a myriad of other problems emanating from the Syrian conflict. So Ankara is making another U-turn. It has quietly dropped its demand for regime change in Syria and gradually scaled back its support for the opposition.
This change in policy has been in the making for some time. In 2015, Turkey shifted its focus from regime change to counter-terrorism amidst domestic and regional developments. In the summer of 2015, ISIS struck a cultural center in a Turkish town near the Syrian border, killing at least 30 people and wounding more than 100. It was the radical group’s first mass killing of civilians in Turkey and the worst spillover in deadly violence from Syria’s civil war. Several days later, a two-year cease-fire between Turkey and the P.K.K. collapsed. Simultaneously, the People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.), the P.K.K.’s Syrian offshoot and a close U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, captured border towns and began to link its disconnected cantons. All of these developments heightened Turkey’s perception of threat and forced Ankara to pivot its Syria policy toward counter-terrorism. Russia’s military intervention in Syria and frayed ties between Ankara and Moscow after Turkey downed a Russian jet later in the year made Turkey’s ambitious regime-change policy even less feasible.
In 2016, Turkey moved to repair ties with Russia while its relationship with its NATO partner, the United States, strained further. Washington’s cooperation with the Y.P.G. was already a long-standing thorn in Turkey-U.S. ties. The coup attempt added another layer to the tension when the United States refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed coup.
Turkey’s siding with Qatar after three Gulf countries and Egypt cut ties with Doha spelled more trouble for Ankara in Syria. Turkey’s stance angered the Saudis, whose Syria policy largely intertwined with Ankara’s. Capitalizing on the tension between Riyadh and Ankara, Syrian Kurdish officials took on an increasingly anti-Iran, pro-Saudi position. In an interview with the Saudi Al-Riyadh newspaper, the co-head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) Salih Muslim said there was an Iranian-Qatari-Turkish alliance to undermine the Kurds in Syria, while the Riyadh-based Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee, dropped its opposition to the Y.P.G. In a recent interview, Riyad Hijab, the head of the High Negotiations Committee, said that his supporters want “to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups, alongside with the S.D.F. (the Y.P.G.-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces), as long as we fight independently in separate fronts.” Ankara watched anxiously as what it saw as a Kurdish-Saudi axis emerged.
These developments coupled with the Trump administration’s decision to double down on U.S. support for the Y.P.G. has prompted Turkey to seek alternatives in its effort to curb Kurdish advances in Syria. The rapprochement with Russia and growing regime as well as Iranian discontent with the Y.P.G. have provided the opening Ankara has been looking for.
After years of fighting at cross purposes, Turkey now seems to have found common ground with the Assad regime and its allies in countering its arch enemy in Syria: the Y.P.G. That means a complete volte-face in Ankara’s Syria policy. Turkey has not only shifted away from attempting to bring down the regime, but it has helped to lock down regime gains in western Syria. After Turkey and Russia forged a deal to end the fight in Aleppo, Turkey played a key role in the opposition’s defeat in their last major urban stronghold to challenge Assad’s rule. The loss of Aleppo proved to be a game-changer in the Syrian conflict. Ankara further assisted regime’s advances through the cease-fires it brokered with Russia between the regime and the opposition. Thanks to the cease-fire in the west, the regime was able to free forces and break the ISIS siege of Deir Ezzor in the east, in what is considered as one of the most significant victories for the regime.
Last month, Turkey cut salaries of members of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition. The move is the latest in a political relationship marred by a divergence of interests between Ankara and the Syrian opposition. Many in the opposition resent what they see as Turkey’s ‘handing of Aleppo to the regime’ and Ankara’s tilt toward the regime and its allies to curb Kurdish advances.
Turkey’s policy change is a big blow to the opposition and a boost for the regime, but it does not mean Ankara is back to “zero problems” with President Bashar al-Assad, at least not yet. For that to happen, Ankara and Damascus have to see eye-to-eye on the Syrian Kurds. If Assad decides that he will no longer tolerate Kurdish autonomy, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may once again have “zero problems with Assad.”