Turkey says it intends to repair relations with Syria

The announcement could suggest an about-turn in Ankara's stance towards the Assad regime, which it has spent the past five years trying to undermine.

Two Syrian women and a boy wait in front of the Oncupinar crossing gate, near the Turkish town of Kilis, to return to Syria on February 9, 2016. Bulent Kilic/AFP Photo
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BEIRUT // In a potential reversal of foreign policy, Turkey’s prime minister said on Wednesday that his country intends to repair relations with Syria – a country whose government Turkey had previously hoped to unseat by backing rebel groups in its civil war.

“We will expand the circle of friendship. We have already started doing it,” said prime minister Binali Yildirim in a televised address on Wednesday.

“We have normalised our ties with Israel and Russia. Now I’m sure we will normalise ties with Syria. We need it,” Mr Yildirim said, adding that he also intends to establish a good relationship with Iraq.

The surprise announcement came after Turkey recently restored diplomatic relations with Israel and Russia and as the prospects for Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria dimmed with the government tightening its grip on Aleppo.

Mr Yildirim’s appointment as prime minister in May appeared to be a more conciliatory approach to foreign policy, in contrast to the aggressive stance of his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu.

He has repeatedly said that Turkey, which in recent years has appeared increasingly isolated, needs to “increase its friends and decrease its enemies”.

The move to repair ties with Syria – if it happens – could be a return to Turkey’s once loudly touted “no problems with the neighbours” approach to foreign policy that shattered when it got involved in Syria’s civil war. Or it could signal that Turkey has lost hope that its rebel allies will be successful and is preparing for what comes next.

Historically, Ankara’s relationship with Damascus has mostly been strained save for a thaw in the run up to Syria’s civil war. In 1998, Turkey even threatened to invade Syria for its harbouring of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.

Relations improved dramatically after 2000 and the ascension of Bashar Al Assad to the presidency. A free-trade agreement boosted the value of Turkish goods exported to Syria nine-fold within a decade and a new visa-free travel arrangement saw Syrian visitors stream into Turkish cities.

When conflict began to engulf Syria in 2011, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – then the prime minister – began pushing for Damascus to reform.

But as the conflict evolved, Turkey quickly became hostile toward the Assad regime and moved to support the opposition instead.

The rebels received weapons, ammunition and other aid that crossed Turkey’s border into Syria. Inside Turkey, rebels were allowed to rest, regroup, establish offices and seek medical care. At several points in the war, Turkey has even threatened to intervene militarily on the ground in Syria.

Ankara has also consistently cast the departure of Mr Al Assad as a precondition for ending the war in Syria.

Mr Yildirim’s statement that Ankara intends to normalise ties with Syria comes on the heels of recent rapprochements with Russia and Israel.

Already at odds with Russia over Moscow's intervention in Syria, relations between the Kremlin and Ankara were severely damaged in November when Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet that Turkey says strayed into its territory.

The Kremlin imposed sanctions on Turkey and Russian tourists – millions of whom had flocked to Turkey every year – stopped coming.

Despite earlier tough talk against Moscow and repeated justifications for shooting down the jet, Turkey has recently back-pedalled. Mr Erdogan said in late June that he was “sorry” for the incident and that Turkey had launched a criminal investigation into the person suspected of shooting down the Su-24.

Turkish-Israeli relations, meanwhile, were blighted in 2010 after Israeli soldiers stormed a ship that was part of a convoy carrying aid and activists to Gaza, killing nine Turkish citizens.

The two countries struck a deal to normalise ties last month, with Israel promising US$20 million (Dh74m) for the families of Turkish citizens killed and Turkey dropping claims against Israelover the incident.

Whether Turkey will pursue a similar path with Damascus remains to be seen. Already on Wednesday, other members of the Turkish government were sending mixed signals about what Mr Yildirim’s statement meant.

“There is currently no change in Turkey’s Syria policy,” a Turkish official told Reuters. “Turkey does not want to have problems with any countries in the region and emphasises the importance of ending terrorism as well as engaging in close cooperation for regional stability.”

“Of course Turkey wants to normalise ties with Syria, but there is no change in Turkey’s policy regarding Syria with Assad,” the official added.

jwood@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse