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Between Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu: What will their Syria policy look like?

Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu will vie for the Turkish presidency in a runoff election on May 28th. Were Kılıçdaroğlu to win, Ankara’s policy on Syrian refugee return, normalization with Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s policy in northern Syria could undergo major shifts.

16 May 2023

ATHENS ­– Incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fell less than one point short of reaching the 50 percent of the votes needed to claim victory in Sunday’s parliamentary and presidential elections, and will face opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a runoff vote on May 28.

Victory for Kılıçdaroğlu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), could herald a shift in Turkey-Syria relations in a crucial moment of regional rapprochement with Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad, after Syria was readmitted into the Arab League earlier this month. Kılıçdaroğlu, a vocal critic of Erdoğan’s entanglement in Syria’s war, has ridden a growing wave of anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, vowing to return Syrian refugees and mend ties with Damascus.

On Sunday, Houda cast her ballot in the country that has been her home since she fled her native Homs city in 2012. She is one of the 200,000 naturalized Syrians in Turkey. “We are all stressed,” she said. “Me and all the Syrians with a Turkish passport voted for Erdoğan because the opposition rhetoric is…not with Syrians,” she said.

The next two weeks will be an “anxious wait” for her. “That’s how elections work, it is my first-time voting,” she added. “In Syria, we didn’t have a chance to vote for the president because we knew the results before the vote.”

Although she is a Turkish citizen, Houda has watched escalating anti-Syrian sentiment with concern, particularly in the run-up to this month’s presidential elections. Both Erdoğan and the opposition have, to varying degrees, stressed the importance of Syrian refugees returning to their country.

For her, the idea of returning to Syria is impossible so long as the same regime that has killed and disappeared thousands of people remains in control. “I won’t come back, you can’t have a safe life in Syria, the regime is still in power, and they still arrest men and women in the checkpoints,” she said. “In two weeks, I will vote for Erdoğan again.”

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has retained a majority of seats in parliament, despite the government coming under fire for its domestic handling of the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes that killed 45,968 people in Turkey and 7,259 in Syria.

Against the backdrop of an economic crisis in Turkey, and after 12 years of conflict in Syria, resentment against the 3,6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey has intensified. Eighty-two percent of Turkish citizens now believe Syrians should be sent back, according to a recent United Nations (UN) study.

With the exception of the Green Left Party, all political parties have made pledges ranging from “voluntary”’return plans to forcibly deporting Syrians. Sinan Oğan, the far-right candidate who has based his campaign in anti-Syrian sentiment, won 5.2 percent of the votes in Sunday’s election, and could become a kingmaker in the runoff vote.

“No matter who wins, it is going to be bad for Syrian refugees. The public hunger to basically see these people deported is enormous,” Nicholas Danforth, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), explained. Under either Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu’s cabinet, “you will likely see some forcible effort to ‘voluntarily’ relocate people,” he added. “Ultimately, political pressure will force either party to want to be seen doing something.”

Erdoğan has long vowed to create a “safe zone” in Turkish-occupied areas of northern Syria for the return of one million Syrian refugees. “In the past two years, we’ve seen many [Turkish-led] housing projects in Afrin and north Idlib, and people who are being returned mostly return to these areas,” independent Syria analyst Suhail al-Ghazi explained.

Voluntary returns from Turkey to Syria in recent years fall well shy of this aim: 161,787 since 2016, and 33,953 in 2022, per UN data. But while Erdoğan’s plan to return one million Syrians has not materialized, his government has deported hundreds of Syrian refugees in the past couple of years, forcing many to sign voluntary departure forms in a breach of international law, as documented by Human Rights Watch.

Muhsen AlMustafa, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies and a former Non-Resident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), expects Erdoğan’s current policy to continue if he wins on May 28. “Maybe the voluntary return will rise because of the economic crisis and the impact of the earthquake,” he added.

Kılıçdaroğlu, for his part, has promised to send all Syrians back to their country in two years. “He has said that it will do this in [such] a way that the resettled refugees’ rights and security were fully protected,” Danforth said. “Everyone realized that’s completely unrealistic.”

Kılıçdaroğlu has run his campaign on the basis of returning Turkey to the “rule of law” and restoring “a democracy that Erdoğan has destroyed,” al-Ghazi  noted, adding that “forcibly sending people back to Syria is going to be more problematic if they really want to adhere to human rights and [international] laws.”

The opposition leader has publicized a plan to seek funds from the UN and the European Union (EU) for Turkish companies to rebuild parts of Syria and relocate refugees there. Danforth called the scheme “unfeasible,” adding that “Turkish firms could play a role in reconstructing Syria through a rapprochement with Assad, but the idea that the UN and the EU in particular will pay for reconstruction in Syria in order to resettle refugees against international law and humanitarian principles—that’s going to be difficult.”

Al-Ghazi agreed, saying the EU would not fund reconstruction unless there were a political solution.  “Gulf countries may be willing to pay, if they reach a deal with Turkey regarding Syria, but sanctions are over everyone’s head,” he said.

Kılıçdaroğlu has also pledged to renegotiate Turkey’s 2016 refugee deal with the EU, under which Turkey received 6 billion euros in exchange for preventing the arrival of Syrian refugees into European territory. “The best that Kılıçdaroğlu could get is a little bit more money for continuing a policy that his party has criticized Erdoğan for,” Danforth said. “Maybe he will ask for more money to make early recovery projects in northwest Syria,” AlMustafa added.

Normalization with Damascus

Kılıçdaroğlu has taken a position of non-interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries, and has strongly criticized Erdoğan for his role supporting the armed and political Syrian opposition during the early years of the conflict. However, Erdoğan has shown recent signs of warming up to Damascus. Last week, for example, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia  met in Moscow.

“Erdoğan has been pushing for normalization, and Russia is doing a bit more to push Assad to accommodate Turkish demands,” Danforth explained. Still, he projected the current “deadlock” would continue because “Damascus remains very insistent that Turkey withdraw all its forces as a preconditions for normalization.”

Kılıçdaroğlu has announced his intention to distance from Putin and strengthen ties with the West. Doing so could mean circumventing Moscow and directly engaging with Assad, al-Ghazi said. “A handshake with Assad is going to be made by both, Kılıçdaroğlu or Erdoğan, both have said that if it is going to facilitate the agreement regarding refugees’ return they will do it,” he added.

Ankara’s policy in northwestern Syria

Kılıçdaroğlu has long opposed Erdoğan’s deployment of Turkish forces in Syria. Turkish troops entered Syria in 2016, and backed Syrian armed opposition groups in a handful of cross-border offensives against Kurdish-led forces in recent years. Today, through groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), Ankara effectively controls areas of northwestern Syria where 2.8 million internally displaced people live.

Kılıçdaroğlu “would be much more open to withdraw from the northwest” than Erdoğan, Danforth said. However, any withdrawal could lead to a Syrian regime takeover of the area and “millions more [Syrians] potentially trying to cross into Turkey.”

AlMustafa read Kılıçdaroğlu’s talk about withdrawing from Syria as an electoral promise, but not a true policy plan. “They made promises for the election, but when someone comes to rule, he will face the reality,” he said. “The army and the intelligence will not accept to lose this benefit from military operations—it’s a national security issue.”

Members of the Turkish opposition have expressed “pretty consistent serious criticism” towards the SNA and “may have no qualms about cutting loose a lot of those people,” Danforth said. Still, Ankara may see the value in continuing to back those actors. And it may be “more complicated to unwind” Turkey from the SNA than expected, considering the “blowback” in terms of leaving these spaces ungoverned or taken over by al-Assad. Turkey’s absence could also hold “potential benefits for the YPG [Kurdish-led People’s Defense Units],” he said.

The SNA is very “pro-Erdoğan”, al-Ghazi said, but if Erdoğan loses, “the SNA will have to change a bit the goals, identity—some [figures] will be dismissed—but this soft power is always going to be a tool for any president in Turkey,” he added. Another question would be to what extent would SNA groups accept their fate. “Those that will not accept will be cut off of favor,” he said.

Ankara’s policy in northeastern Syria

In northeastern Syria, Turkey occupies a 30km border area in the vicinity of Ras al-Ain, while the bulk of the northeast remains controlled by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The conflict in this area has been frozen since the last Turkish cross-border military offensive in 2019.

If Erdoğan retains the presidency, “the Syrian Kurds would try to play on increased Western animosity towards Erdoğan and see what that can get them, but it seems they’ll be stuck playing a delicate balancing act that they have been over the last five years,” Danforth said.

The main ally of the SDF is the US, but they have also kept the door open to Damascus. If Kılıçdaroğlu takes the presidency, his pro-Western approach may help thaw the situation. “Before the Americans weren’t trusting Erdoğan, but you may have a new government who is saying I want to be more pro-West, so the SDF will have to make concessions to take steps in order for Turkey,” al-Ghazi said.

“I could see Kılıçdaroğlu being more open to a solution in which Turkey withdrew its forces from the northeast in return for the YPG coming back under the umbrella or control of the Syrian army. The devil will be in the details, but a solution along these lines is certainly easier to imagine under the opposition,” Danforth explained.

However, for AlMustafa, Assad’s forces controlling the northeastern border with Turkey could mirror the situation in southern Syria, where a Damascus-backed captagon trade has taken over. “Turkey doesn’t know what will happen when Assad controls the border, he said.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s capacity to act in the northeast may also be limited. “It’s a national security issue and I believe Kılıçdaroğlu can’t take steps alone with no acceptance from [the] army or intelligence,” AlMustafa added.

The AANES, as the de facto authority in northeastern Syria, announced its readiness on April 20 to receive millions of internally displaced Syrians and refugees, Al-Monitor reported. “The offer of accepting refugees did seem like a clever one but I don’t think they expect [Turkey] to seriously take them up on that,” Danforth said. Still, in the event of a  Kılıçdaroğlu victory,   “they’d certainly be eager to see where the opportunities were for negotiating.”

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