Bashar al-Assad on the rise

Syria's ruler Assad was isolated for a long time. Now the willingness to talk to his regime is growing again in the region. Even a deal with Turkey is taking shape. What has changed?

A hint of a kiss on the left, another on the right, plus a big smile. When Bashar al-Assad received the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus last Wednesday, he could hardly hide his good mood.

For Syria’s rulers it was already clear that the first week of the new year would be a good one. Not only could he be pleased to further intensify the politically and economically important contact with the rulers of the Gulf, whom he had already visited in Abu Dhabi last year. No, an important neighbor from the north also made another big step towards him.

Erdogan speaks of meetings

“We will bring our foreign ministers together and then, depending on developments, we will come together as leaders.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said so on Thursday, promising a personal meeting with Assad for the first time since the war in Syria began in 2011 – the man he had called a “murderer” in the past.

For years, the Turkish government, as a supporter of the Syrian opposition, had pushed for Assad’s fall. Not much is heard of that now.

The announced meeting of foreign ministers was preceded by a meeting of defense ministers in Moscow at the end of December. At the invitation of Assad’s most important ally, Russia, they wanted to look for “solutions” in Syria together, it said.

Erdogan’s problem with the mood towards refugees

What solutions do you mean? It’s no secret that the Turkish president is under domestic political pressure in the election year because sentiment towards Syrian refugees in his country has recently deteriorated significantly. More than three and a half million Syrians live in Turkey and Erdogan would like to get rid of these people.

This topic is said to have been discussed in Moscow, but also about further action against the Kurdish militia YPG, which controls north-eastern Syria and is a thorn in Turkey’s side.

What could a deal look like?

Is Ankara offering Damascus the prospect of resuming diplomatic relations and returning to closer trade and security ties in exchange for persuading Assad to permanently rule out full autonomy for Kurds in Syria? Quite possible.

In addition, Erdogan is likely to hope that his ground offensive against the Kurds in Syria, which has been announced several times in the past few weeks, should it come about without much resistance from Assad and his Russian supporters.

Turkey describes Kurdish forces on its border as a terrorist threat. Since 2016, Erdogan’s soldiers have advanced across the border several times with tanks and are keeping parts of Syrian territory under their control.

Syrian opposition in mounting fear

In Syria, however, it is not only the Kurds who are alarmed at the new closeness between Erdogan and Assad. The fear of being abandoned by Ankara is growing, especially in the areas still controlled by the Syrian opposition.

In the rebel region of Idlib, where Islamist groups are the most influential, many people see Turkey as a protective power. Many desperate opponents of the regime are taking to the streets in Idlib these days, waving the black, white and green flag of the Syrian opposition and loudly calling on Erdogan not to get closer to Assad.

Will their protest succeed? In all probability not.

Idlib back in the UN Security Council

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council is once again dealing with the situation in Idlib this Monday, because a UN resolution will expire on January 10th, which ensures that aid supplies can also be brought via Turkey to parts of the Syrian country that are not controlled by the government in Damascus.

Six months ago, Russia initially vetoed it and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing had to be temporarily closed. Should such a stalemate occur again this winter, it would have devastating consequences for the civilian population.

According to aid organizations, malnutrition already affects more than a million internally displaced people in north-west Syria. Will Russia still veto this time? Unlikely, but cannot be ruled out.

New opportunities for talks for Assad

Bashar al-Assad will be able to look at all this in peace, as he seems to be on the upswing. Not only do his troops control around two-thirds of Syria, no, after many years of isolation, during which his government was only supported by Russia and Iran, long-lost channels of communication are opening up for him.

And the west? In Europe and America, the reaction to recent Arab and Turkish advances towards Assad has ranged from irritated to annoyed. “We have made it clear to our allies and partners that now is not the time to normalize relations,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington recently.

A scolding that sounded rather helpless. The influence of the United States in Syria in particular is likely to continue to decline in view of the latest developments.

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