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What cards does the Syrian opposition hold to prevent normalization between Ankara and Damascus?

The issue of human rights is one card the Syrian opposition can play to obstruct moves towards normalization with Assad, but the end scenarios may not be in its favor, with a “piecemeal” political settlement not in accordance with Resolution 2254. 

27 January 2023

PARIS — Responding to the voices of demonstrators in northwestern Syria rejecting Turkish-Syrian rapprochement with the slogan “we will not reconcile,” the President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Salem al-Muslat, came out in a filmed statement on January 4 saying “the Assad regime is a genocidal regime” and “illegitimate.”

Contrary to Turkey’s recent moves towards restoring relations with Assad after 11 years of estrangement, al-Muslat—speaking in the name of the highest formal opposition authority—stressed “the path of salvation, to save the people, is to save them from this regime.”

The Turkish-based Coalition’s official stance aligns with the voices of civilians in northwestern Syria. The leaders of the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) have also expressed their refusal of Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, emphasizing the slogan “we will not reconcile.” 

But the disappointments Syrians opposed to Bashar al-Assad have faced from the political and military opposition, especially the SNA—which operates under Turkish influence, with Turkish support and within the framework of Turkey’s political and military agenda—have shaken civilians’ trust that the opposition can stand fast in its anti-rapprochement stance. 

“The political opposition has no international weight, and the Coalition no longer has any role,” defected Syrian General Mohammad al-Haj Ali told Syria Direct. “Neither it nor the factions will be able to influence Turkey’s position, especially since Ankara is the one that moves them.”

Signs of Ankara’s rapprochement with the Syrian regime began to appear with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s statements on August 11, 2022—when he revealed that he met with the Syrian regime Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in October 2021 on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. 

Turkey has assured Syrians that “it is out of the question that we could take any steps against our [Syrian] brothers that live in Turkey and Syria,” as Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in late December 2022. Ankara has also stressed the need to resolve the Syrian crisis in accordance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254

But an intelligence meeting, and then a ministerial level meeting between Russia, Turkey and Syria held in Moscow in late December 2022, as well as Ankara’s intention to hold a meeting of foreign ministers, increases Syrians’ fears—particularly in the country’s northwest, where more than four million people live, half of whom are displaced. And in the northeast, two million Syrians are in the scope of Turkey’s threats of a military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

The opposition’s cards

Several areas in northwestern Syria saw demonstrations against “reconciliation” with the regime after Friday prayers on January 20. Protests were held in the cities of Marea and Afrin, in the SNA-controlled northern Aleppo countryside, as well as in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-controlled Idlib city and the town of Qarquniya.

Demonstrators sent “a message to Turkey, the regime and the world, expressing their rejection of Turkish policy,” but the impact of that message is limited, and may not extend beyond “the media,” al-Haj Ali said. The continuation of demonstrations is tied to Ankara’s stance towards them, he added, as the latter “is the only outlet for Syrians in northwestern Syria, and if it were closed, they could starve to death.” Turkey also controls the region’s factions. 

“The protests and demonstrations that have erupted in northern Syria may be a little awkward for Turkey, but it’s not something that Turkish voters will care about,” said Aron Lund, a researcher at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI) and United States (US)-based Century Foundation. “And if Turkish voters do not care about it, then Erdoğan won’t care about it. He’s entirely focused on winning the upcoming elections at this point.”

Lund thought it unlikely that the Syrian opposition can dissuade Turkey from reconciling with the Assad government if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chooses that path.

Yahya al-Aridi, a Syrian writer and politician who has held several positions in the political opposition, said the most it can do at present is “appeasement.” The opposition “cannot refuse unless it has a say, and it can only have a say by being close to the people,” he told Syria Direct

While the Syrian opposition’s position appears weak, “I don’t think Turkey intends to completely turn its back on the opposition, or withdraw entirely from Syria,” Lund said. “Erdoğan needs to have cards to play in Syria. The military presence is one such card, but it relies on local armed factions to be effective, whether it be the Syrian National Army or Tahrir al-Sham.” Turkey’s “control of the political opposition” is another, “since it allows Ankara to shape the peace process and terms for Assad’s political rehabilitation,” he added. 

On the other hand, if Turkey comes to an understanding with Assad, “the Syrian opposition will not be able to stand alone against the Syrian military and air power,” said Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the US University of Oklahoma. “Both HTS and the militias of Aleppo province depend on the Turkish air force.” 

But the Syrian opposition has some cards it can play to place pressure on both Turkey and the international community. One is that of the displaced and refugees, a “big problem, not only for Turkey but also for Europe,” Landis said. In the event of any military change to Syria’s last opposition-controlled areas, “what does Turkey intend to do with the four million opposition fighters, their families and other refugees?” he wondered. 

The opposition’s stance also relies on the US rejecting rapprochement with Damascus. On January 4, the US State Department called on the countries of the world not to normalize relations with Assad, who State Department spokesperson Ned Price described as a “brutal dictator.”

The situation of the US in Syria is precarious at the moment, however, especially in the northeast, because “everyone wants it to leave except for the Kurds. Also, the relationship of the United States to Turkey is more important than its relationship with the YPG,” Landis said. “Erdoğan and Assad are counting on Biden’s desire not to get permanently trapped in Syria’s ongoing civil war. They will continue to raise the pressure on the Kurdish-run enclave.”

But the opposition can also leverage the issue of human rights, Landis noted. “The Assad regime is brutal and incapable of dealing with the opposition according to international law. The opposition can play the human rights card, which it has done successfully throughout the conflict.” 

Human rights in Syria

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented the killing of 229,119 civilians by the parties to the conflict and controlling forces in Syria between March 2011 and the end of 2022. More than 87 percent of those were killed by the Syrian regime, which is responsible for the deaths of 200,422 people, including 22,953 children and 11,955 women, according to statistics SNHR provided to Syria Direct

Over the same period, SNHR documented the detention and disappearance of at least 154,398 people, including 135,253 detained or forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime. 

These figures—which are only those documented—highlight the scale of human rights violations in Syria. On this basis, “laws have been issued, such as the US Caesar Act sanctions and European economic sanctions, and reports have been issued by UN committees that formed a condemnation of the regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity,” SNHR Director Fadel Abdul Ghany said.

“Countries that respect themselves, that care about their reputation, are not prepared to restore their relations with the regime,” Abdul Ghany told Syria Direct. Doing so carries “a high cost for those countries, not to mention that—in countries accountable to their people and media—a politician who wants rapprochement with the regime will be stained.” This is not only from a humanitarian perspective, but in terms of “rights and the law,” he said, given “the regime’s violations, [which have been] systematically documented with strict standards.” 

While the international community cannot hold Assad accountable in international courts due to Russia’s UN Security Council veto power, recent years have seen the trials of a number of those implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity in European courts. In January 2022, a court in Koblenz, Germany sentenced the former head of investigations at the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate’s al-Khatib Branch, Anwar Raslan, to life imprisonment

“Restoring relations with the regime is a violation of Syrians’ rights,” Abdul Ghany emphasized. “Normalization is a violation of international law, restoring relations with [the regime] means supporting it, and most countries don’t want that,” save for “some countries that can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” he said.

The recent thawing ties between Turkey and Syria coincided with a similar trend between Syria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Jordan made moves towards restoring relations with Syria in 2021, only to run up against an increase in drug smuggling from Damascus, en route to Gulf states. 

‘Wake the dead’

In December 2022, Assad approved a draft budget for 2023 of SYP 16.5 trillion—a 24 percent increase over the year before, if calculated in the local currency. But the budget’s value, $3.6 billion, was less than the $5.3 billion budget in 2022, $6.8 billion in 2021, and $9 billion in 2020. 

Last year, civilians in regime-controlled areas of Syria suffered the most severe economic hardship since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011. The 2023 budget, coupled with the inflation the country is experiencing, warns of continued economic decline. 

Despite the importance of any rapprochement or normalization for Damascus, that alone cannot pull it out of the “bottleneck” of being “a bankrupt regime,” al-Haj Ali said. The regime “has lost everything, including its reputation among its supporters,” so all its efforts “will not succeed in waking the dead.”

The Syrian regime is going through “a critical stage—it has not been this destitute through all the years of the crisis,” said Karam Shaar, Director of the Syria Program at the Observatory of Economic and Political Networks. Even so, this does not mean the regime will make political concessions, as “it has already been subjected to major pressure, such as the military pressure in 2013 and 2014, yet did not make concessions.” 

On the other hand, “the current economic situation could drive the regime’s allies to put pressure on it to enter into a political settlement,” Shaar said. “Russia and Iran have reached a point of restlessness, so much so that they are not prepared to support it economically.” 

Shaar cited recent statements by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who “welcomed Syrian-Turkish rapprochement.” Amirabdollahian said, during a meeting with Assad on January 14, that dialogue between Damascus and Ankara, if serious, “is a positive step for the benefit of both countries and the region.” 

Damascus “currently has no way out of its economic and political impasse, except through a political settlement,” Shaar said, “but it may not be in accordance with UN Resolution 2254.” 

He expects any settlement to be “piecemeal,” such as “agreeing with Turkey to deal with the Turkish threat in northeastern Syria and stop the export of drugs to Gulf countries, so long as Bashar al-Assad’s presence is accepted.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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