After more than a decade of international and regional isolation, Syria has recently emerged from the cold, with its readmission to the Arab League. It was expelled from the league 12 years ago. Its readmission marks a significant turning point in Syria’s diplomatic relations and has paved the way for several Arab states to resume ties with Damascus.
Notably, the UAE took the lead in adopting a pragmatic approach towards Syria’s reintegration as early as 2018, followed by countries like Bahrain and Jordan. However, the most notable breakthrough came with Saudi Arabia’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Syria in May, signalling a major shift in the regional dynamics.
While some Arab states, such as Qatar, Morocco, and Kuwait, continue to oppose normalization of relations with Syria, others have chosen a different path. The Sultanate of Oman, with its longstanding neutral regional policy, maintained ties with Syria throughout its isolation, while Algeria a close Arab ally, actively supported Syria’s return to the bloc. Egypt, too, is among the few Arab states considering resumption of relations with Damascus.
Overall, the majority of Arab League member states either have already normalized ties with Damascus or are actively pursuing such normalization, representing a significant political victory for the Asad government and its allies, and a loss for those countries and non-state actors who sought to overthrow it.
Aside from the collective west which includes Israel, Turkiye is among the countries which supported the armed Syrian-based factions, intent on overthrowing the government in Damascus. Turkiye still maintains an unauthorized military presence in Idlib province in the northwest, and routinely carries out drone strikes in the Kurdish-held northeast, which is technically and arguably in accordance with the Adana Accord, signed in 1998 between Ankara and Damascus.
Nevertheless, the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League and the re-establishment of ties with Damascus by a growing number of states have set the stage for potential rapprochement between Turkiye and Syria.
Turkiye’s regional influence and its complex relationship with Syria have been shaped by several factors, including political, security, and humanitarian considerations. As the conflict in Syria enters a new phase, with the focus shifting from military operations to political solutions, exploring the potential consequences of Turkiye-Syria normalization becomes crucial.
The issue of normalizing relations with Syria and the plight of 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkiye were some of the most pressing talking points in the May presidential elections, which saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retain his position against his main opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has opposed Turkish military intervention in Syria and has proposed normalization of ties with Asad and the controversial repatriation of refugees.
Erdogan too, promised that one million Syrian refugees would be “voluntarily returned”, pending normalization. As the elections drew closer which led to a second round of voting, anti-immigrant sentiment surged.
However, the Syrian government has reiterated the pre-condition for reconciliation: withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory. There has been steady, even if slow, progress between the two countries. Late last year, security and defense officials from the two countries met in Moscow. At the time, it was considered to be the highest-level engagement, until a more significant one was held in early April, in the same city, with deputy foreign ministers from Russia, Turkiye, Syria and Iran. A month later, another round of quadrilateral talks was held, this time by foreign ministers of the respective countries.
On June 21, the 20th session of the Astana process took place in the Kazak capital. There was renewed focus on Turkiye-Syria relations amid increased diplomatic activity in the region which has seen rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran restore relations. This has paved the way for potential peace talks between Riyadh and the Ansarallah-led government in Yemen. There is also speculation that Egypt and Iran could be considering normalization of relations.
The latest Astana talks started off promising, with several ideas on the table for normalization, according to Iranian deputy foreign minister, Ali Asghar Khaji. However, in a surprise announcement, host Kazakhstan has proposed ending the talks, with the 20th round being the last of its kind.
Kazakh deputy foreign minister Kanat Tumysh said that the move could be partially explained by “the return of Syria to the Arab family.” It may be seen as a positive step since it acknowledges the fact that Syria is no longer the pariah it once was and following on from the thawing of relations, Ankara and Damascus can start to hold more formal, direct talks, in line with the current diplomatic trajectory.
As a major regional player, Turkiye’s resumption of relations with Syria holds the potential to enhance regional stability and security. By engaging in dialogue and cooperation, both countries can address shared challenges, including terrorism, border security, and the threat posed by non-state actors, including Kurdish separatists.
The re-establishment of ties between Turkiye and Syria would also open up avenues for economic cooperation and reconstruction efforts. Turkiye’s economic crisis, combined with Syria’s post-war reconstruction needs, present opportunities for trade, investment, and infrastructure development. Such economic cooperation could benefit both countries, create employment opportunities, and contribute to the stabilization of Syria.
Additionally, Syria’s return to the Arab League and the growing number of Arab countries re-establishing ties with Damascus indicate a broader political realignment in the Arab world. This changing dynamic could have far-reaching consequences for regional alliances, balance of power, and the influence of major players such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar. Turkiye’s potential normalization with Syria further solidifies this realignment, altering the existing geopolitical equations.
While there will be further cooperation and diplomacy among Arab states, Syria’s rehabilitation will not necessarily lead to diminished Iranian influence in the country, which “is quite pervasive and deeply entrenched.”
Just ahead of Damascus’ readmission into the Arab League, Iranian President Ebrahim Raiesi paid a visit to Syria, representing the first trip by an Iranian president to the Arab state in more than 10 years. Symbolically, Raiesi also toured religious heritage sites in Damascus, including praying at the Umayyad Mosque. He also beat Erdogan to it, as in the early days of the Syrian crisis, President Erdogan famously vowed to pray in the courtyard of the mosque.
For arch-rival Israel, Syria’s return to the Arab fold is a cause for concern, especially as it illustrates the waning influence of its security guarantor the US amid strengthening Russian and Chinese influence in West Asia. In a recent piece entitled ‘How Israel lost the Syrian Civil War’ the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, notes that “As long as Assad remains in power, Iran’s military build-up will gradually expand, acquiring over time more potential. Hopes that the West or the Arab states would offer Assad attractive incentives to break away from Iran’s embrace are wishful thinking.”
In the puzzle of Syria’s normalization, Turkiye stands as a key regional player that has yet to find its place. While both Turkiye and Syria acknowledge the inevitability of normalization, there are critical outstanding issues that must be addressed for progress to be made.
The repatriation of refugees and ensuring their safe passage, as well as the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory, are paramount concerns that need resolution. These issues require attention and resolution, irrespective of the support or involvement of other states.