As football fans were closely watching the spectacular 2022 FIFA World Cup opening at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor in the Gulf state of Qatar, a photo of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shaking hands with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the opening ceremony was released to the media.
The surprising photo overshadowed the World Cup opening ceremony in the eyes of the "fans of diplomacy and international relations." The handshake came as a surprise because Ankara and Cairo have been at odds since military chief el-Sissi took power in the country after overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the late Mohammed Morsi. However, recently diplomatic channels have been reopened and meetings have been held through back-door diplomacy at lower levels.
The handshake, or let’s say Ankara’s attempt to reestablish ties with Cairo, came following the Turkish government’s series of rapprochement moves, namely with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as Armenia. The regional realliances and normalization efforts are surely facilitated by the United States' withdrawal from the region and U.S. President Joe Biden’s pushing the Middle East dossier aside – for now – as the games in the Pacific seem to be more interesting at the moment for Washington. In addition, Türkiye’s rising regional power is now understood and accepted by the other actors who now lack the White House’s rigid support. This discussion, however, is a matter for another article.
The reconciliation with regional actors reached a new level with Ankara and Cairo’s attempt to fix ties. Simultaneously, though not as ripe as the "handshake photo," an even hotter topic is also keeping pundits busy: Can Erdoğan meet the leader of the Syrian regime?
Regarding the ongoing normalization process with Egypt and a possible diplomatic normalization between Türkiye and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, Erdoğan said that Türkiye can reconsider its relations with the countries it has trouble with. "There is no eternal resentment or quarreling in politics. When the time comes, you sit down, evaluate it, and you can make a renewal accordingly. At the moment, as Türkiye, we can reconsider relations with countries with which we have difficulties in these matters. Especially after the June election, we can do it all over again. And accordingly, I hope we can continue on our way." Erdoğan previously said he could meet with Assad when the right time comes, reinforcing tentative recent steps to restore ties between the two sides.
What Assad has done to his people throughout the Syrian war, the number of people killed and displaced, and the destruction that has occurred in the country over the past decade do not need explaining at length here. If anything, Türkiye has suffered the most economically, politically and socially given the fact that it hosts some 5 million refugees within its borders, let alone the security aspect along its border with Syria and another failed state, Iraq.
For the gladiators of world politics, "permanent interests remain constant, while friends and enemies can change." In other words, pragmatism is, at times, invoked when interests are at stake. This, however, should not be translated as states not having principled stances when it comes to diplomacy or foreign policy.
Will Erdoğan meet Assad? Well, certainly they could meet, but why should they? Perhaps, certain reasons have become ripe for the two states to establish some sort of connection as a beginning to open new channels for communication.
First of all, for Ankara, Syria’s territorial integrity has been fundamental and a non-negotiable article in any talks it has been involved in. If the same article is a constant for the Assad regime and its backer Russia, then the elimination of any entity within Syria that targets both Syria’s territorial integrity and also poses a threat to Türkiye’s security must be eliminated. In other words, agreeing on the elimination of the PKK terrorist organization’s Syria affiliate, the YPG, which poses a threat to Syria’s territorial integrity and remains one of the main sources of instability in the region, can be the stepping stone for the rapprochement.
Damascus agreeing to eliminate the YPG, if also supported by Assad’s main backer Moscow, can facilitate talks and a reconciliation process with Ankara. Shifting its military focus from Syria to Ukraine, Russia does not seem to have an appetite for the Syrian war to prolong. These dynamics have also been supported by Türkiye’s active mediator role during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
If and once the talks process begins between Ankara and Damascus, and tangible results are achieved, then other files, such as the safe return of Syrians back to Syria, the reconstruction of Syria and the elimination of other extremist groups in Idlib can be discussed and terms can be negotiated during the process.
In addition, there is also the issue of the U.S. troops in Syria, which is not welcomed by Moscow, and how Iran will position itself in the event Ankara fixes its ties with Assad. It must be underlined, however, that if Ankara’s meeting with Assad is promoted by his backers, the elimination of the YPG as an entity that poses a threat to Türkiye’s security and targets Turkish citizens must be the top topic on the agenda before others can be discussed.