Is it time for Turkish troops to withdraw from Syria?

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad insists that there can be no normalization with Türkiye as long as Turkish troops’ boots are on the ground in the country’s north.

The Syrian regime has consistently demanded the withdrawal of Turkish troops as a prerequisite for restoring relations. In response, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu argues that if Türkiye withdraws, terrorist groups will fill the void left by the Turkish army in northern Syria. The presence of the Turkish army in Syrian territory since 2016, along with their local proxy, the Syrian National Army (SNA), has been primarily to counter the presence of the PKK’s Syrian offshoot YPG terrorists on the border and to prevent further influxes of migrants. Another reason is to stop more migrant influxes.

As analysts agree, Syria’s Bashar Assad regime is not interested in retaking the northern part of the country since it will be an economic and social burden on Damascus, not to mention the security problems and political turmoil it will cause. The regime just tries to raise the stake in negotiations with Türkiye. The timing is also convenient for Syria as it has just been reaccepted to the Arab League, a development encouraging the regime to speak more loudly against Ankara. Otherwise, if the Turkish government accepts withdrawal, the party that will panic is the regime itself.

However, despite compelling reasons for Türkiye and the regime’s ostentation, there is still a perception that Türkiye is the occupier in Syria. Whereas, facts are quite different. The fact that Türkiye is not eager to keep troops in Syria can easily be proven. First, there is no economic nor political, or any other type of benefit to being in Syria. On the contrary, the Turkish army’s presence is costly and certainly, the Turkish government would be happy if it pulled troops out of Syria.

Second, politically, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has suffered a lot due to opening borders to Syrian migrants and not sending them back to Assad’s persecution. He reiterated many times that his government will not force migrants to return unless their security is ensured. Because of his quiet moral stance, he lost supporters. Even a few days before May 14 elections, he stated that his government will not send Syrians back until the conditions are right. What might Erdoğan have gained from this damaging policy? Nothing other than humanity.

Syrians in Türkiye

Moreover, third, approximately 3.5 million Syrians live in Türkiye after escaping the Assad regime’s tyranny. This means that 15% of Syria’s population is in Türkiye, a number greater than the population of at least six small Arab states among the total of 22 states. With such a significant population residing within Turkish territories, it can be said that Türkiye has a legitimate stake in Syria. What is more, the Turkish military’s presence is not a response to Syrian migrants currently in Türkiye but a measure to prevent the influx of 3 million-4 million more migrants. Needless to say, if the Turkish army withdraws, more migrants will cross the border and the possibility of current ones returning back will go down to zero percent.

Therefore, it can also be argued that Türkiye is still in a defensive position though it has troops in Syria. Adding to the migrant problem, the YPG will certainly attempt to occupy areas vacated by the Turkish army with the help of its Western allies.

In such circumstances, it is a pity that the Arab League, which also accuses Türkiye of occupying Syrian territories, reinstated the Syrian regime’s membership but took no action against the Syrian people. For sure, a failed state like Syria will be a headache for the league unless it intervenes at least for humanitarian reasons. Perhaps, Türkiye is doing what Arab states should have done for Syrians, thus it deserves appreciation instead of accusation.

As for future projections, it is less likely that Türkiye will withdraw from Syria until the regime (or international actors) provides security for migrants. In addition, not the regime but what Russia says will matter regarding Turkish-Syrian relations. Based on good Turkish-Russian relations, and Russia’s mediation role, the regime does not have an upper hand over the Turkish government. Hence, what the regime officials say is not much of importance unless supported by Moscow.

Source: Daily Sabah

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