The Occupied areas are heating up- Reconciliation and ongoing protests

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Summary: 

  • All diplomatic ties between Syria and Turkiye were severed after the Syrian uprising in 2011.
  • In 2022, the two states officially began a process of rapprochement and Erdogan declared in June 2024 that there were no obstacles to the resumption of ties with Syria.
  • As a result, numerous protests broke out in the Syrian territories occupied by Turkiye’s proxy militias, amid rising hostility towards Syrian refugees in Turkiye.
  • In Turkiye, protests targeted Syrians and their property. In Syria, different SNA factions, according to their affiliation, took either a supportive stance of the protests or sided with Turkiye and tried to suppress the protests.
  • In response, Turkish personnel retreated to Turkiye and closed its main border crossings into northwest Syria.
  • The intensity of the protests in Syria cannot be detached from the growing influence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni Salafi political and military organization which is less dependent and less under the control of Turkiye. Its changing stance towards the protests allows it to impose its own political agenda.
  • The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (DAANES) has strongly criticized this normalization, which targets it and wants to crush the Syrian opposition, which it says can only be achieved against the Syrian people.



Background:

For almost 10 years, public diplomatic relationships between Turkiye and Syria have been non-existent. Turkiye decided in 2012 to break all diplomatic ties with Syria, following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, officially citing the brutal repression of the popular demonstrations by the Assad government as the reason. On August 11th 2022, Turkiye’s then-Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for reconciliation between the Syrian Opposition and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. On that occasion, it was also revealed that Turkish and Syrian intelligence services had already resumed their communication near the end of 2021.1 This announcement sparked protests in all occupied areas2 and a general fear among some Syrian National Army (SNA) factions that Turkiye would cut its material support and that a reconciliation with the Assad regime would bring a takeover of the areas under their control and subsequent repression of their factions. RIC’s report “The Syrian National Army: The Turkish proxy militias of northern Syria” clearly demonstrates that Turkiye supported the non-Kurdish opposition forces with training and financial resources, and thus tied them to their own goals. In this sense, Turkiye has been an opponent of Syria, using the outbreak of the civil war to exert and manifest its influence in the country.3

Erdogan and Assad together. 4

On December 15th, 2022, Turkish President Erdogan laid out a possible reconciliation road map, by anticipating a series of tripartite meetings: between the three (Russia included) countries’ intelligence services, followed by defense ministers,5 and finally by the foreign ministers. Russia has long been a strong supporter of the Assad regime, advocating for its reintegration into the Muslim Brotherhood and pushing for reconciliation between Syria and Turkiye.6 On December 28th, the respective defense ministers and intelligence chiefs met in Moscow and evaluated the meeting positively, agreeing to continue the process.7 In response, protests rocked all of northwestern Syria. The wave of demonstrations touched both the Turkish-occupied territories, involving the cities of Afrin, Azaz, al-Bab, Marea, Akhtarin, Qabasin, as well as the Idlib governorate.8

In January, Iran started to get involved in the process as a second mediator. Talks were suspended during February and March due to the earthquake that struck the region on February 6th, 2023.9 They were resumed in the period prior to the May 14th Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, with meetings on April 4th, April 25th, and May 10th. Protests lasted until mid June 2023 when, after the election, Turkiye changed its tone. A single meeting occurred on June 20th between deputy foreign ministers.10 With this, the overall situation returned to the impasse seen at the beginning of 2022: the Syrian government was demanding the complete withdrawal of the Turkish military from Syrian soil as sine qua non to enter negotiations, while Turkiye was rejecting this. Erdogan re-stated his denial on July 17th, 2023. 3 months later, on October 17th, the Turkish Parliament voted to extend the mandate for Turkish military operations in Syria and Iraq for another two years.1112

From Turkiye’s side, such rapprochement has been heavily tied to Turkish internal politics. Public discontent regarding Syrian refugees in Turkiye has been reaching new highs since 2023. For this reason, the possibility of reconciliation with Damascus, as a means to allow Syrians residing in Turkiye to return home, had originally been pushed forward by the Turkish opposition as an electoral push.13 14Furthermore, weakening or even destroying the DAANES would have wide implications on internal politics, as it would significantly weaken the calls for Kurdish autonomy within Eastern Turkiye. From August 2022, the AKP-led government started to include reconciliation in their agenda as well. In the run-up to the May election, Erdogan made efforts to show that his administration was responsible for advances on that front, and the series of tripartite meetings proved successful. However, after their success in the elections, the AKP government again de-prioritized the topic of rapprochement, although public pressure and geopolitical tensions mean that Erdogan is currently forced to address it again.15

Current Events:

On June 26th, during a meeting in Damascus with Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian President’s Special Envoy on Syria, Syrian President Assad said: “Syria is open to all initiatives regarding Syrian-Turkish relations as long as they are based on respect for the sovereignty of the Syrian State over all its territory and the fight against all forms of terrorism and its organizations.”16 This was followed by a declaration by Turkish president Erdogan, after Friday prayers, that “There is no reason why [diplomatic ties] should not be established [with Syria]”17

Simultaneously, while Turkiye is battling with a major economic crisis, public discontent regarding Syrian refugees in Turkiye is on the rise. On June 30th it was first alleged that a Turkish child was raped by a Syrian refugee, which fueled the preexisting anger and triggered attacks against Syrians in Kayseri (central Turkiye).18 Later it was revealed that the 7 year old girl was indeed herself Syrian. Protests spread throughout all of Turkiye demanding the more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees be kicked out of the country, leading to Syrians being attacked, their shops burned, cars destroyed and eventually to the public sharing of thousands of Syrian’s ID documents and their whereabouts.1920 During the anti-Syrian protests several people were hurt, such as two teenage Syrian boys who were assaulted by a group of ultra-nationalist Turks in Antalya. Some local reports even claimed that the boys were killed.21

Burning car in Kayseri (Turkey) on July 1st22

Following the declarations by Erdogan and Assad in June, and the anti-Syrian protests in Turkiye, protests broke out in Afrin, Azaz, Idlib, al-Bab, Jarabulus, Mare, Tal Abyad and Sere Kaniye on July 1st. As a response, Turkish personnel started to retreat to Turkiye.232425 Turkiye also closed its main border crossings into northwest Syria.26 In the first hours of the protests people started to tear down Turkish flags and attack Turkish military vehicles.27 28The anti-Turkish sentiment was furthermore fueled by the anti-Syrian protests and attacks in Turkiye, leaving many of the Syrian protesters to detest Syria’s former supporter, Turkiye. As Ibrahim Sheikho, a spokesperson for Human Rights Organization Afrin, put it: “[The Turks] initially said that the Syrians are their brothers, but now they are making plans to displace the Syrians again for the sake of some interests with the Syrian government, forming factions against the Syrians to suppress the protesters. The people are starting to see their true intentions.”

According to Human Rights Organization Afrin, the protests in Afrin left 7 militants dead, most of whom were affiliated with Jaysh al-Islam.29 Meanwhile more than 20 people were wounded. Of the 7, one child was killed by Turkish soldiers in Azaz.30

Car on fire in Occupied areas on July 1st31

During the protests several Turkish bases fell into the hands of protesters, such as in west-Aleppo.32 Protesters also attempted to capture the Jarablus crossing, surrounding and attacking it for hours.33 It is important to note, however, that most protesters are not civilians, and rather belong to SNA factions, are settlers, or both. After the Turkish invasion of Afrin for example, 300,000 Kurdish inhabitants fled, and in their place more than 450,000 Arabs, Turkmen and Palestinians were settled. According to Human Rights Organization Afrin, the percentage of Kurds in Afrin fell to less than 25%, whereas pre-occupation it stood at 95-98%. 

Different SNA factions, according to their affiliation, took either a supportive stance of the protests or sided with Turkiye and tried to suppress the protests. According to Ibrahim Sheikho, SNA factions, including Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Jabha al-Shamiya, al-Hamza, and Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, are present in Afrin. Ahrar al-Sharqiya, Jaysh al-Islam, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya supported the protesters. Whereas al-Hamza, Sultan Suleiman Shah Division, and the military police rejected these protests and tried to suppress them. Of the factions that supported the protests, al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) and Jaysh al-Islam are part of the third Legion, an all Islamist faction that includes many Salafi-jihadist groups. They aim to create an Islamic State in all of Syria. Before October 2022, they were one of the main forces in all three Turkish-occupied regions. At times, they had enough power and unity to try to pursue their own line even if not in accordance with Turkiye. Ahrar al-Sharqiya is part of the Liberation and Construction Movement (aka Harakat al-Tahrir wa al-Bina, حركة التحرير والبناء). Ideologically, they are both Salafi-jihadists and include in their ranks several former ISIS members. More about this can be found in RIC’s SNA encyclopedia here or on our website. 

The Syrian Interim Government (SIG) issued a statement calling for unity between the Syrian people and the Turkish government.34 The SIG is completely reliant on Turkiye for political and economic backing, hence cannot openly criticize Turkish policy.

Turkiye had prohibited any actions against Turkish-Syrian reconciliation steps, but for the Turkish-occupied regions of Syria, reconciliation is tantamount to “betraying the Syrian revolution”. Yet, RIC has previously evidenced how the militias that once fought to free Syria from Assad are today little more than Turkish proxies.35 According to Ibrahim Sheikho, the SNA factions that sided against the protests aided its crackdown by arresting everyone who participated in the protests or burned Turkish flags and then handed them over to Turkish authorities. A prominent example of this is the case of a teenager who was reportedly arrested by Turkish Intelligence (MIT) and then forced to film a video apologizing for “burning Turkish flags during protests in areas of Turkish forces in northern Aleppo countryside” and kissing the Turkish flag, which was broadcast on Turkish TV.36

It is alleged that another reason for the strong protests is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni Salafi political and military organization, with growing influence in the areas occupied by Turkiye. The al-Qaeda offshoot is less dependent and less under the control of Turkiye and benefits from the growing discontent with Turkiye’s influence. It operates primarily in northwestern Syria, with its stronghold in the Idlib governorate. RIC’s HTS report (available here on the RIC website) describes the organization, its implementation of what appears to be a new form of jihadism, and analyzes the events that have allowed HTS to extend its influence within the SNA-controlled Turkish-occupied territories of northern Syria since the beginning of 2022. It is worth noting that several SNA factions are under strong HTS influence. 

While officially prescribed as a terrorist organization in Turkiye, HTS at times collaborates with Turkiye, such as in the case of arresting two protesters and handing them over to MIT, in an attempt to assert its own power.37 Generally, HTS is pushing its own agenda as an increasingly powerful actor, at times with tacit Turkish approval, at other times creating tensions with Turkiye.

In an attempt to stop the protests and clashes, a meeting between the SNA leadership and Turkish officials took place on July 1st, resulting in a video being spread announcing the cessation of protests by the SNA.38

Yet protests continue, although at a lesser rate.39 40Especially on July 2nd, after the burial of those killed during the clashes, protests erupted again indicating strong anger and will among the people. On the same day, the protesters circulated a list of demands, reading:41 

  • Rejection of all forms of normalization with the regime – Prevent opening of any crossing before a transitional political process begins.
  • Working with the Turks according to joint mutual interests and preventing interference with the revolution’s goals and principles.
  • Formation of an urgent emergency government for 6 months
  • Curb the reach of military forces into the civil space.
  • Formation of an elected political commission from free and revolutionary groups inside Syria and a commission to follow refugees’ affairs abroad
  • Independence of military and civil judiciary
  • Restructuring of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)

Ibrahim Sheikho explained to RIC: “We see that normalization or the Syrian-Turkish agreement comes at the expense of Syrians and their goals. The agreement between the two states is attempting to crush the Syrian opposition, also targeting the DAANES. The goal is also to reintegrate the opposition forces who fought against the Syrian government to the regime”. The Syrian Democratic Council, connected to the DAANES, said in its statement that “Turkiye attempts to normalize relations with Damascus, disregarding the aspirations and sacrifices of the Syrian people, and it uses some Syrians to work for its agendas. Turkiye’s efforts underscore that the Syrians’ salvation lies in unity, cooperation, and overcoming their differences for a unified Syrian national project.”

At the time of writing, protests have mostly cooled, but have not yet stopped.42 They are likely to reignite as the discontent in the occupied areas, and among Syrians, remains strong. 

Conclusion

With the dire economic situation, Turkiye finds itself under pressure to change its policy towards Syria. Turkiye is currently involved in north and northwestern Syria in two main ways: through economical and military support of the rebel militias – to both HTS and the SNA, even if in different ways and to different extents – and through its direct military presence; that is, maintaining its troops deployed in the military bases disseminated along the front line with the Syrian government, and inside the Afrin region and the M4 Strip. Turkish intervention has indeed been the fundamental reason why northwestern Syria has been able to survive the Russian involvement in the civil war that gave new life to Assad’s rule. Turkiye’s main goal is to weaken, if not destroy, the DAANES, as it sees it as part of a wider call for Kurdish autonomy, which it believes to be a “terrorist threat”.43

So far, the Assad Regime has been insisting on Turkiye’s withdrawal from Syrian territory, which would only be strategic for Turkiye, if DAANES could not benefit from such a withdrawal. Moreover, the conundrum arises from the risk of triggering a refugee wave. The small Idlib region contains, at the moment, around 4.5 million people, roughly half of which are internally displaced by the war. Should Turkiye retreat now, the Syrian government would retake these territories, and thousands of people would likely move into Turkiye. As the protests clearly show, people are not content with returning back to Assad’s rule. This is an eventuality that Turkiye and Europe will try to avoid by all means. Any withdrawal would therefore likely be a gradual and internationally regulated process.

So far, European countries and the USA have not commented on this topic. 

What is clear, is that a democratic solution is only possible if all peoples of Syria and the factions are able to come together. This needs to include the DAANES and the roughly two million people living within DAANES territory. In order to ensure democracy, possibilities need to be opened for internally displaced people to return to their homes. This is in stark contrast to Erdogan’s policy of demographic change in the occupied areas, as is well documented by Human Rights Watch,44 and well reported in RIC’s Occupation Reports that can be found here.

Once more, to find a democratic solution, the DAANES and, ultimately, the Syrian people need to be granted a voice in the quadripartite meetings.

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