Is the Anti-Assad Camp Stuck in a Prisoner’s Dilemma?

Recent events surrounding the Syrian war are impacting diplomatic and political processes designed to end it, including Turkish calls for reconciliation talks with the Syrian government. This is a result of Russian efforts to force a rapprochement between Ankara, the Syrian opposition, and the Kurds in northeast Syria with the Assad regime, developing a prisoner’s dilemma situation with substantial implications for Syria’s future.

Reasons for a Turkey-Syria Rapprochement

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent comments regarding reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria sit at the crux of Syrian diplomatic dynamics. On 11th August, Cavusoglu said, “We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace.”[i] He also revealed a late 2021 meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Belgrade which, according to reports, was followed by multiple meetings between the heads of Turkish and Syrian intelligence.[ii] This dialogue has continued through September as the intelligence heads try to set up other ministerial-level meetings. Some informed sources have suggested that this “thaw” could create “a climate for understanding.”[iii]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also voiced support for dialogue with Assad.

Cavusoglu’s remarks stoked protests across Turkish-controlled north-western Syria (NWS), albeit they were largely contained by militias backed by Turkey. Cavusoglu attempted to contextualise his comments by claiming that the Turkish government has never failed the Syrian opposition, which “trusts Turkey.”[iv] Nevertheless, Cavusoglu doubled down on the need for a settlement: “There cannot be a condition for dialogue, but what is the aim of these contacts? The country needs to be cleared of terrorists. People need to be able to return.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also voiced support for dialogue with Assad; “The opposition and the regime in Syria need to reconcile,” he said just days after Cavusoglu’s initial comments.[v]

Ankara’s principal concern in Syria today is the Kurdish issue.

The statements prove that Ankara’s principal concern in Syria today is the Kurdish issue. Specifically, Turkey remains focused on degrading the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a primarily Kurdish militia that is backed by the United States and has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that Turkey has fought for forty years and designates as a terrorist organisation. Thus, In Ankara’s eyes, these two organisations are synonymous and pose a dire threat to Turkish security.

It is also difficult to view Turkish calls for reconciliation with Damascus outside of Erdogan’s domestic political challenges within Turkey. Indeed, the June 2023 general elections are rapidly approaching. Polling indicates that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) coalition is slightly behind the Republican People’s Party-led (CHP) opposition, with Erdogan himself facing a six-point runoff loss to CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.[vi][vii] Resentment against Syrian refugees and a continuously deteriorating economic crisis are worsening Erdogan’s electoral prospects, with the AKP coalition viewed as responsible for the country’s increasingly dire economy with 80% inflation and the perceived untenable status quo regarding Syria and refugees.[viii] The opposition understands this, centralising the forced return of all Syrian refugees and rapprochement with Damascus within their political platform.

Turkey’s quagmire in Syria largely drives a sense of frustration for Turks. Indeed, Turkish objectives appear exceedingly unrealistic under current conditions. Ankara is unable to commit to a new military offensive against its Kurdish rivals in northeast Syria (NES) due to the presence of U.S. forces and a red light from U.S. President Joe Biden, leaving it largely powerless to achieve its core objective of hampering the Kurds. The same problem exists in NWS, where Kurdish-held areas are off limits to Turkey due to a lack of support from the Russians stationed there. Meanwhile, Turkish soldiers continue to die across northern Syria,[ix] harming Erdogan’s domestic standing with Turkey’s crucial nationalist electorate. Such realities, both within Turkey and inside Syria, suggest that Erdogan is stuck in an unwinnable situation that requires drastic changes to conditions on the ground.

Dr. Karam Shaar, a Non-Resident Scholar with the Middle East Institute, told me that Ankara would reach out to Damascus so Erdogan could “overcome the Kurds in northeast Syria and deal with political problems arising from Syrian refugees. Reaching out to the Syrian regime is beneficial whether it results in a political settlement or not,” he said.

According to Shaar, Erdogan “believes that if he extends a hand to Assad, he can tell his domestic opposition ‘See, you can’t work with this guy. There is nothing he will give us. He’s untrustworthy and intransigent. Now, as is the case with most prominent political parties in Turkey, we are like you [the opposition]. We are happy to work with Bashar al Assad, but it is Assad that doesn’t want to work with us.’”

Indeed, it is apparent that such an approach is designed to undermine the Turkish opposition’s core electoral argument. Erdogan can present an effort to drastically change the dynamics of the Syria quagmire without necessarily needing to resolve the plethora of issues emanating from it before winning re-election. But whether this has a large enough impact on Turkish electoral politics remains to be seen.

A Prisoner’s Dilemma in Northern Syria

However, shifting Turkish rhetoric also gives credence to the anti-Syrian discourse flourishing across Turkey. Regardless of intentions, Ankara’s talk of reconciliation places it further down the road towards real engagement with Damascus, even if tangible progress is not achieved in the short-term. In this regard, the Russians play a crucial role as a driver of rapprochement with Assad.

Moscow has worked for years to induce talks between major stakeholders in Syria and Assad’s government. This is particularly true as it relates to Turkey.

It is not a secret that Moscow has worked for years to induce talks between major stakeholders in Syria and Assad’s government.[x] This is particularly true as it relates to Turkey, the Syrian opposition, and the Kurds. As Damascus has slowly regained territory, the regime is also forced to accept Syria’s de facto partition. Russia, for its part, desires an end to the war to capitalise on its investment that saved the regime, especially considering its war in Ukraine. Russia’s veto of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in July, effectively ending the only serious political track designed to end the war, further signals an advanced effort to facilitate such plans if it recognises weakness can yield results.[xi]

Dr. Eyüp Ersoy, Visiting Lecturer with the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham, noted in an interview that Russia is central to these intelligence meetings. “Further dialogue between Turkey-aligned armed opposition and the Syrian government would be welcome by Russia as a by-product of the reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, for which Russia provides its good offices at the moment.”

Thus, recent Russia-Turkey dialogues are crucial to understanding Ankara’s efforts at reconciliation. Putin and Erdogan met on multiple occasions in 2022 to discuss Syria, most importantly in Sochi on 5th August.[xii] After this meeting, Ankara shifted its rhetoric on talks with the regime – an unlikely coincidence. To be sure, while it is difficult to know the exact nature of the talks between the two leaders, the timing of recent events as they relate to Erdogan’s increasingly fraught political position cannot be ignored. The Turkish leader’s desire to hold on to power drives his thinking, as reflected by previous anti-democratic reforms solidifying his presidential powers. Rumours of Erdogan statements “wish[ing] Assad had come to Uzbekistan” for a recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, and that he “would have spoken to him,” only support such reasoning.[xiii]

In this context, Putin could press Erdogan to inch toward reconciliation with the regime by blocking Ankara’s ability to create a 30 km buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border for refugee resettlement—a long-running Turkish policy objective that includes violently removing the armed Kurdish presence in these areas. The frozen nature of the conflict—likely preferred by the United States today due to far too many competing foreign policy interests—blocks the buffer zone in the northeast and parts of the northwest, whereas Moscow’s priorities block an offensive in the rest of NWS.

The Syrian National Council, alongside the other major opposition bodies, has long been beholden to Turkey.

The Syrian opposition in NWS is largely powerless to stop Ankara’s potential interest in talks with Assad. The Syrian National Council (SNC; Etilaf), alongside the other major opposition bodies, has long been beholden to Turkey and rely heavily on development and humanitarian aid to survive, let alone political and security cover.[xiv] As Shaar notes, “Turkey has tamed the Syrian opposition to the point that their views become virtually identical [with Ankara]. The Syrian opposition does not dare say or believe in something that is not identical to Turkish interests.” Certainly, protests in NWS against reconciliation suggest widespread, categorical rejection of such efforts, but the real power in the area simply cannot turn against Turkey and expect to survive.

Thus, not much is stopping Ankara from talking with Damascus to resolve outstanding issues. This includes Turkey’s desired buffer zone, which would inflict a massive blow to the Kurds and can be included in a deal with Assad if built around the previous 1998 Adana Agreement.[xv] Herein lies the crucial component of this developing prisoner’s dilemma: with the Turks reaching out to Assad’s officials while continuing to threaten an offensive against the Kurds. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) will become increasingly worried that it could be crowded out of a post-war deal. Specifically, if reconciliation efforts advance between Turkey and the opposition, on the one hand, and Damascus, on the other, this would leave the Kurds severely exposed and threaten their autonomous project in NES.

This scenario is unacceptable to Kurdish leaders, who would likely respond to any deepening talks with similar outreach to Assad. This has already occurred—the Kurds have repeatedly engaged Damascus when faced with the risk of Turkish military offensives and continue to deal with the regime today. The Syrian government has gladly responded by deploying its forces across AANES territory on multiple occasions to accommodate Kurdish security concerns in exchange for expanded troop deployments across Syria.

Ersoy notes such a dynamic between the Kurds and Turks. “While several militant groups call for the discontinuation of the existing regime, the PYD [Democratic Union Party – political wing of YPG] appears to be inclined for a negotiated compromise. Any substantial Turkish operation against either the Syrian armed forces or the PYD is certain to induce these parties to seek compromise solutions in the presence of common threats. That seems to be the main reason behind the recent Turkish overtures for de-escalation with the Syrian government.”

The prisoner’s dilemma thus presents itself.[xvi] With Turkey and its proxy opposition considering deeper talks with Damascus while threatening to violently crush the Kurds, the AANES are in turn incentivised to resolve issues with Damascus before Turkey to secure their future. When flipped, Kurdish talks with the regime to secure any degree of autonomy, or simply prevent Ankara’s buffer zone plans, directly threaten Erdogan’s hopes of resettling Syrians and stifling perceived Kurdish threats on Turkey’s southern border. This could result in Erdogan’s electoral defeat—suggesting that Turkey may pursue additional talks in the future if Ankara’s initial outreach does not translate into improved electoral metrics. Indeed, in any such scenario, Assad is the conclusive winner—not Turkey or Syria’s Kurds.

[i] “Syria rebels call protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ proposal.” Agence France-Presse (AFP) via Al-Monitor. August 12, 2022.
[ii] “Inter-Syrian dialogue essential for peace: Cavusoglu.” Hurriyet Daily News. August 16, 2022.
[iii] Coskun, Orhan, and Laila Bassam. “Exclusive: With a Russian nudge, Turkey and Syria step up contacts.” Reuters. September 16, 2022.
[iv] “Cavusoglu: I Didn’t Say “Reconciliation” But “Settlement” Between Opposition and Regime.” Baladi News (via the Syrian Observer). August 17, 2022.
[v] Toksabay, Ece, and Ali Kucukgocmen. “Turkey has no preconditions for dialogue with Syria – foreign minister.” Reuters. August 23, 2022.
[vi] Sencar, Ozer. Metropoll August 2022 polling data.
[vii] Zaman, Amberin. “Turkey Briefing.” Al-Monitor. 2 September 2022.
[viii] Butler, Daren, and Canan Sevgili. “Turkey’s inflation hits new 24-year high beyond 80%.” Reuters. 5 September 2022.
[ix] Donmez, Beyza Binnur. “2 Turkish soldiers killed in anti-terror operation zone in N. Syria.” Anadolu Agency. 27 July 2022.,Defense%20Ministry%20said%20on%20Wednesday.
[x] Mardasov, Anton. “Russia explores way to draw UAE, Saudi Arabia to its Syria policies.” Al-Monitor. 26 February 2020.
[xi] Hamidi, Ibrahim. “Why Does Russia Want to Remove the Syrian Political Process from Geneva?” Asharq Al-Awsat. 18 July 2022.
[xii] Isachenkov, Vladimir, and Zeynep Bilginsoy. “Putin hosts Erdogan for talks on trade, Ukraine, Syria.” Associated Press. 5 August 2022.
[xiii] Butler, Daren. “Erdogan wanted to meet Syria’s Assad – Turkish media.” Reuters. 16 September 2022.
[xiv] Hall, Natasha. “Rescuing Aid in Syria.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). February 2022.
[xv] The Adana Security Agreement. 20 October 1998.
[xvi] Dodge, Robert V., “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” in “Schelling’s Game Theory: How to Make Decisions.” February 1, 2012.

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