Turkey's tricky Syrian dilemma: Erdogan's tough choices ahead
As tensions between Turkey and Syria remain heightened, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have his back against the wall. Sinan Ciddi, in a recent piece for Foreign Policy, outlines the myriad challenges facing Erdogan, chief among them his strained relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Following Assad's incendiary remarks accusing Turkey of supporting terrorism in Syria, the longstanding rift between the two nations has again come under the spotlight.
For the past decade, Erdogan's primary objective has been the removal of Assad from power. However, Assad's enduring rule, bolstered by the unwavering support of allies Russia and Iran, and Syria's reintegration into the Arab League, signals Erdogan's need to reconsider his stance.
Amid this backdrop, Turkey grapples with internal economic turmoil and a growing public outcry against the prolonged presence of Syrian refugees. Erdogan's policies have come under fire, with many Turkish citizens attributing their financial woes to the influx of refugees consuming national resources.
Sensing an opportunity, Assad has imposed a pre-condition for any discussions related to the repatriation of refugees: the complete withdrawal of Turkish military forces from Syria. Historically, Turkey has supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) substantially, which eventually pivoted from opposing Assad to confronting the Syrian Kurds. The latter, perceived by Turkey as a security threat, has been recognized by the U.S. as a pivotal ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Adding to Erdogan's difficulties, it appears increasingly unlikely that most Syrian refugees, now profoundly integrated into Turkish society, will return to their homeland. As Erdogan contemplates the potential repatriation of even a nominal number of refugees, he is faced with a daunting choice: withdraw troops from Syria, thereby conceding a failed strategy, or maintain the status quo and further alienate Turkey on the international stage.
With recent U.S. sanctions on Turkish-backed militia groups highlighting international discontent with Turkey's actions in Syria, Erdogan is trapped in a web of mounting pressures. As Russia champions a Turkey-Syria reconciliation and the U.S. urges an end to Turkey's militia support in Syria, Erdogan must also grapple with domestic demands to address the refugee situation and perceived Kurdish threats. The emerging narrative suggests that a strategic withdrawal from Syria may be Erdogan's only viable move forward.