Turkey’s newfound willingness to engage states it long antagonised, most notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel, holds the potential to lead to a reshuffling of international relations in the Middle East. Across the region, these developments could herald a further weakening of Sunni Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots, and could also buttress the anti-Iran partnership linking the Gulf states to Israel. In the case of Syria, however, the possible consequences of improved relations between Turkey and the Saudi-led axis are multifaceted and difficult to disentangle, due to the country’s territorial fragmentation and the numerous foreign interests at stake. To further complicate matters, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added a new measure of uncertainty to the geopolitical struggles underway in Syria.
To assess the potential impact of Turkey’s diplomatic outreach on the war in Syria, there are four points to keep in mind. First, it is worth highlighting that Turkey and the Saudi-led axis have different interests in Syria. Turkey’s current policy objectives in Syria include securing opposition-held enclaves in the north of the country, facilitating the relocation of Syrian refugees to these territories, and countering the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which Ankara considers linked to the PKK. Of course, Turkey would also like to secure a political settlement in Syria, involving both the opposition and Bashar Al-Assad’s government, but that goal is more aspirational than actual, particularly since it would involve U.S. and Russian mediation—an increasingly improbable prospect in light of the breakdown in relations between the two great powers. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, meanwhile, have largely come to terms with Assad’s political survival, and are primarily interested in curbing Iranian influence in government-controlled Syria.
A second point to consider is that Turkey’s diplomatic charm offensive stems from a position of weakness vis-à-vis the Saudi-led axis. Over the past decade, Turkey’s decision to back Islamist movements in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scathing critiques of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman, and others greatly contributed to isolating Turkey in the Middle East region. To make matters worse, Erdogan’s poor economic and monetary policies led the lira to lose almost half its value in 2021 and caused inflation to surge above 54% in 2022. Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies, meanwhile, emerged seemingly victorious from the turmoil of the post-Arab Spring years. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organisations suffered major setbacks across much of the Arab world, including in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan. Even Egypt appears more stable today than at any point in time since Sisi’s takeover in 2013. Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates no longer perceive Erdogan as a threat and are now leveraging their oil wealth to lure Turkey to the anti-Iran coalition.
A third dynamic is that Assad has been busy with his own normalisation attempts, in the hopes of restoring Syria’s role in the Arab League and securing lucrative business deals with Sunni Arab states. The United Arab Emirates has played a leading role in helping Assad’s regime return to the Arab fold, even inviting Assad to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in March 2022. Jordan and Egypt likewise took important steps, including the recent agreement to deliver Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria, with U.S. backing. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been cooler towards Syria, but its policy is likely part of a well-coordinated negotiation strategy. Sunni Arab states are presumably acting in concert, offering Syria piecemeal and incremental economic rewards—and the prospect of a return to the Arab League—in exchange for the containment of Iranian influence in Syria.
Finally, the fourth issue to consider is that the war in Ukraine has injected a new dose of uncertainty in the international struggle over Syria. While there is little doubt that the Syrian people will inevitably face new hardships, as the price of wheat, fuel, and other consumer goods inches higher, the other possible repercussions of the war are less evident. Assad, for one, will have to weigh carefully the shifting balance of power on the international scene.
What are the implications of the aforementioned points in regards to Turkey’s policy in Syria? To start, Assad is no position to launch a major offensive against Idlib. The war in Ukraine has brought about a shift in the Kremlin’s priorities, and without Russian air power and know-how the Syrian Arab Army will likely stay put and refocus on tightening its grip on territories already under government control.
In Idlib, the reduced risk of new regime offensives significantly decreases the likelihood of new waves of mass displacement. That could provide the civilian population with some respite, at least in the short term. Yet, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham remains dominant in Idlib and will undoubtedly seek to exploit any period of relative calm to further entrench its rule. In theory, Erdogan could undercut such efforts, and move to extend Turkey’s influence in Idlib. However, the Turkish president still lacks the political will to tackle and rein in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Domestic considerations—ranging from Turkey’s economic woes to the 2023 presidential elections—will likely take precedence on Erdoğan’s agenda. Meanwhile, the Turkish government will press ahead with its ongoing efforts to relocate Syrian refugees from its territory to the areas of northern Syria under its tutelage.
As for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, as long as the Biden administration remains committed to its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey’s policy options remain limited. In fact, if Erdogan does manage to leverage the war in Ukraine to mend ties with NATO and the United States, it will become politically more difficult for Turkey to keep antagonising U.S. policy in Syria.
In government-controlled Syria, Turkey will also find it increasingly hard to project influence. For better or for worse, Vladimir Putin long represented the “go-to” mediator between Erdogan and Assad, thanks to his political credibility on both sides of the Ankara-Damascus divide. But today the Russian president’s attention is focused elsewhere. And as evidence of war crimes in Ukraine builds up, it is doubtful that Putin will remain a viable international mediator. As a result, Erdogan and Assad now lack a mutually acceptable and credible broker. Incidentally, these developments also represent a new setback for the already moribund Syria peace process, which is now hopelessly stalled.
Paradoxically, Assad could still manage to leverage events in Ukraine to cement his power. Assad is after all a master of political survival and has displayed in numerous instances an uncanny ability to take advantage of international power struggles. In the early days of the Ukraine war, he repeatedly took actions that positioned Syria as a dependable and even valuable Russian ally. For example, Syria was one of only a handful of countries worldwide to oppose the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Syria also raised eyebrows as a ready supplier of battle-hardened fighters to support Vladimir Putin’s war effort.
There is of course a possibility that Russia might lose considerable international influence, as a result of military losses in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and international isolation. Still, even if Russia were to lose influence, Assad could potentially increase his reliance on Iran. It is worth keeping in mind that if the Islamic Republic manages to clinch a deal with the United States over its nuclear program, it could experience an oil and gas windfall, as fossil fuel prices in international energy markets are set to remain high for the foreseeable future. Iran remains of course eager to put down roots in Syria, to project influence and threaten the security of Israel. But Assad is well aware that Iran’s nuclear deal may well stumble, and to hedge his bets he is pursuing parallel diplomatic dialogues with several Sunni Arab states, extracting economic benefits in exchange for promises to curtail Iranian influence in Syria.
Assad, however, is in for some hardball negotiations. Having secured political and economic concessions from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt, the burden is on him to reciprocate, with measures aimed at limiting the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. It will not be easy. Assad owes his very survival at least in part to Iran and Hezbollah, and his security state still very much depends on these actors. Yet, Mohammed Bin Salman will want to see concrete signs that Assad is indeed pushing back against Iran’s dominance before offering Saudi support for Syria’s international rehabilitation and post-conflict reconstruction. And if Assad fails to deliver, the Saudi Crown Prince may well up the pressure. In such a scenario, Turkey could help Saudi Arabia bolster the anti-Iran coalition. Turkey may have limited influence in government-controlled Syria, but in Iraq its policies are already antagonising Iranian interests, and could contribute to weakening Tehran’s hand in Syria.
Turkey’s diplomatic outreach towards Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel could thus result in Ankara joining the anti-Iran coalition, in a region-wide struggle in which Syria is but one of many battlefields.