Hişyar Özsoy (Peoples' Democratic Party, Turkey): Turkish-Syrian rapprochement seeks to eliminate Kurdish status

Hişyar Özsoy

First published at ANF English. Edited for clarity by LINKS.

Following Turkey’s failure to get the green light for its military operation in northern Syria, the possibility of a meeting between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came up on the agenda. Especially after the explosion at Taksim in Istanbul on November 13, the Justice and Development Party/Nationalist Movement Party (AKP/MHP) government has intensified its war rhetoric. Although Turkey had no authorisation for a ground operation, attacks on Rojava were carried out by drones and fighter jets.

Now there is talk of a meeting between Erdoğan and Assad, especially as Turkey heads to elections. Erdoğan is using diplomacy to get the 30-kilometre zone he wants in Syria before the elections and send refugees there. According to various sources, Assad has been asked by the United Arab Emirates to "take a photo with Erdoğan". In addition, this diplomatic traffic is also supported by Russia.

However, high-ranking Syrian sources told Almayadin News that Damascus would not give a date for a meeting as long as Turkey did not withdraw from Syria. This report was supported by a statement by Assad. After his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, Assad said that Turkey should stop its operations in Syria and its support for opposition groups.

So, will Turkey's Syria policy take the form Erdoğan wants by the time of the elections? What position will be taken when Iran comes into play, and what does this situation mean for the Kurds? Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) MP Hişyar Özsoy, co-spokesperson of the party’s Foreign Relations Commission, addressed these questions in an interview with ANF.

Turkey did not get the desired green light for its military operation in northern Syria, but there is now talk of a possible meeting between Assad and Erdoğan. Will this possibility be realised before the elections, as Erdoğan would like? Which scenario is conceivable?

Especially in the last three years, Turkey has started a process of normalisation with all the powers in the Middle East with which it had problems before. There were serious tensions with Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and it is moving towards normalisation, even if only partially. But there are still problems that have not been resolved. This is because the problems between these countries and Turkey are generally structural. They can not be solved through expressions of goodwill and nice speeches and meetings.

The most important link in this normalisation is, of course, Syria. The effort to bring about normalisation with Assad before the elections and Erdoğan's persistent attempts show two things. First, the bankruptcy of Turkish policy towards Syria. More precisely, Erdoğan is experiencing the bankruptcy of his general policy in the Middle East. That is why he is seeking normalisation. What we call normalisation is actually an attempt to restore relations by making a U-turn. This bankruptcy also shows a weakness. Because while Erdoğan is persistently trying to meet Assad before the elections, Assad is taking his time. As far as we can tell, Assad does not want a meeting before the elections. Turkey, however, through Russia, is pushing hard for such a meeting.

Could there be a meeting forced by Russia?

It's difficult to predict at the moment, but Damascus doesn't seem very interested in this question. Damascus also sees Turkey as an occupier. Moreover, Damascus probably knows that Turkey has no intention of leaving Syria. Erdoğan wants to make a profit before the elections, which he can sell in two ways. First, if he meets with Assad, and if it is an official conversation, the first thing he will probably do with his media army is to create the impression that the refugees can be deported from Turkey in the near future. Secondly, he might try to bring about a partial normalisation with Assad and prepare the ground for an attack on the Kurds.

We understand [Turkish Minister of National Defense] Hulusi Akar's words to mean the following: “We say that we are fighting for the integrity of Syria, but in reality, it is about ending the Kurdish gains in Syria together with Damascus”. But the fact that they are accelerating this so much three months before the elections should be seen in the context of the elections. I think it is important because Erdoğan will try to sell a story to society with a change of policy in Syria, both on the Kurdish question and on the issue of refugees. We will see whether this will be the case or not. But normalisation with Syria overnight is not that easy. Erdoğan definitely does not want to give Assad what he is asking for. I think this issue will take a long time.

For example, there are reports that Assad was advised by the United Arab Emirates to take a photo with Erdoğan. On the other hand, you also said that Turkey is making this demand through Russia and seems to have Russia's support. From this point of view, how long will Damascus resist, or can it resist at all?

There are two aspects here: First, Assad does not want to give Erdoğan points and credit before the elections. Because Assad has seen what Erdoğan has been doing for ten years, letting gangs and all kinds of mobs fight in Syria. Secondly, the question of normalisation is not a simple matter. Because both the US and the UK have made it very clear that they are against normalisation between Erdoğan and Syria under the auspices of Russia. Therefore, it is not an issue that only Erdoğan can decide. There has been an ongoing war there for ten years. Therefore, this situation will pull Turkey a little more towards Russia. The West still has a very serious problem with Assad. How far can Turkey, as a NATO country, normalise that? As I said, I think that is not necessarily in Erdoğan's hands.

For example, there is talk that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will visit Washington. Even if Cavusoglu can't convince Washington, he will at least try to guarantee Washington's silence for the Syria talks, but I think that won't succeed either. Because, at least for now, the US is not giving the green light for such normalisation.

You said Turkey is gradually moving towards Russia and the US does not want that. More specifically, what impact will this situation have on the ground?

The US is conducting its Syria policy on two levels. They work intensively with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurds east of the Euphrates, but they also work with Turkey in the Idlib area. Is it possible for Turkey to hold Idlib against Russia, Iranian militias and Syria without the US? Therefore, it may well be that the US will partially change its Idlib policy if Erdoğan gets closer to Assad. One reason why the US supports Erdoğan in Syria is that Turkey is still a NATO member. Yes, there are problems and tensions between the US, NATO, the West and Turkey. But at the end of the day, Turkey is still seen as a NATO ally and keeping Turkey, a NATO member, there instead of leaving Syria entirely to Iran's and Russia's initiative, is of course, a rational situation if you look at it from a NATO and US perspective.

So would they pursue a flexible policy?

The problem is that Turkey is not doing this in spite of these forces, but that these forces are still keeping Turkey on the ground as a NATO power. In the Idlib region, there is almost complete harmony between Turkey, NATO and America. When it comes to the Kurds, tensions increase. So, in this respect, the US is going in two directions in Syria. They work with both the Kurds and Turkey. If the US could bring the Kurds and Turkey together, it would probably take a stand, but Turkey does not want to meet with the Kurds under any circumstances, it attacks them at every opportunity.

I think we can assume that this normalisation plan is aimed at the status of the Kurds anyway. What consequences will this process have for the Kurds?

The most important reason for the rapprochement between Assad and Turkey is, of course, the Kurdish question. Both are firmly opposed to Kurdish demands for political status such as autonomy and federation. Therefore, they are natural allies for each other. Of course, Turkey can and should hold talks with Syria. There is a 900-kilometre border, so of course they will talk. However, the aim of talks between Syria and Turkey should not be to eliminate the Kurds or undermine their achievements. Any normalisation and any negotiation that does not include the Kurds will be used against them. This will also further aggravate the Kurdish question in Turkey.

For a long time, Turkey has supported a series of unknown thieves, gangs and legionnaires to eliminate Kurdish gains. But this policy is finally coming to an end. Therefore, if Turkey wants to seriously harm the Kurds and prevent them from gaining status, there is only one way out, and that is to sit down with Assad and make an agreement.

Turkey will probably sell out all the opposition groups it has supported so far and look for ways to push the Kurds back into statuslessness together with Assad. How long can this go on? It depends on the positioning of the regional, global and local powers. But I would like to see Turkey, which is home to the largest Kurdish population, actually seize the opportunity to put aside its hostility towards the Kurds and take a joint position with them in the Middle East. But they would also fall at the feet of Assad, whom they call the murderer of 500,000 people, "as long as he does not see his Kurdish mother". We are confronted with such an anti-Kurdish policy, but one that is doomed to failure and bankruptcy.

You spoke of regional power factors, and in this context, it is also about Turkey's confrontation with Iran in Syria. How do you assess that?

Iran and Turkey are two competing powers in Syria. From Iran's point of view, Turkey is not only a regional power, a neighbouring power, but also a NATO member. The struggle for supremacy between Iran and Turkey in Syria will therefore naturally continue. In this respect, Iran even has an advantage. For Iran is in the field as an ally of the regime that won the war. The Turkish-backed forces are losing, and Turkey will probably put them all up for sale in the near future. In many areas already under Turkish control, there are now protests against the Turkish government and Erdogan and his efforts to move closer to Assad. The groups that Erdogan has been using for ten years are now starting to speak out because they believe they could be sold out.