Turkey has signalled a normalisation of relations with Syria, in an apparent policy shift after five years of a civil war that has increasingly threatened Turkish borders and worn down an anti-government rebellion heavily backed by Ankara.
Such a move, which has been rumoured for weeks in media outlets in Lebanon close to the Bashar al-Assad regime, would represent a tectonic shift in the region’s dynamics, realigning protagonists in the war and potentially spelling an end to the rebellion against Assad’s rule.
It would also indicate that Turkey sees the threat of Kurdish expansionism in northern Syria as a greater priority than the removal of Assad, who in 2011spurned demands by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister and now president, that he recognise rather than crush popular opposition to his rule.
On Wednesday the prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, said in a television address that restoring relations with Syria was needed both in the context of a counter-terrorism campaign and an overall reset of relations with regional powers.
“I am sure that we will return [our] ties with Syria to normal,” he said. “We need it. We normalised our relations with Israel and Russia. I’m sure we will go back to normal relations with Syria as well. We need this [because] in order for counterterrorism efforts to succeed there has to be stability in Syria and Iraq and [they] need to adopt a system of government that represents all our brothers and sisters [in Syria and Iraq]. This is inevitable.”
Turkish officials played down suggestions that Yıldırım’s remarks represented a policy reversal, insisting there was no intention of seeking reconciliation with Assad’s government, only with whichever government replaces him.
“There is a distinction between Syria and Bashar al-Assad,” a senior Turkish official said. “We hope, at some point, relations between Turkey and Syria will get back to normal. That’s what it is. That’s all it is.”
The remarks came weeks after Ankara restored diplomatic ties with Russia andIsrael, ending months of escalating tensions with the Kremlin after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had strayed into its airspace, and years of severed relations with Israel after several Turkish citizens died when Tel Aviv ordered a raid on the Mavi Marmara, a flotilla attempting to break the siege of Gaza.
They reflect widespread fears inside Turkey that the war in Syria is threatening the country’s territorial integrity, a development that would have wider implications for Turkey’s restive Kurdish population.
The Kurdish PYD and its paramilitary force, the YPG, hold sway across vast tracts of northern Syria along the border with Turkey, which says they are Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), a designated terrorist organisation that is fighting a long-running insurgency in south-east Turkey.
Syria’s Kurds recently declared the territory they had clawed back from Islamic State control, with American backing, part of an autonomous zone that neither the Turkish nor the Syrian governments recognise, and which Ankara fears will spur its own insurgency.
Turkey has suffered terror attacks in its territory, including the recent bombing of its bustling Atatürk airport and an attack in Ankara last October that killed more than 100 people at a peace rally, both of which were blamed on Isis. Kurdish separatists have claimed several attacks against Turkish security forces.
Turkey has long been a staunch opponent of Assad, and has repeatedly called for his departure as the only path towards a credible peace process that would end the civil war. In that time Turkey has taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees. Erdoğan said this month that he may offer citizenship to some.