May 14, 2023 - 8:00am

With Syria’s return to the Arab League this week after more than a decade of suspension, we can say that Bashar al-Assad’s victory is almost sealed. The long and bloody civil war, now almost entirely frozen, is soon to draw to its formal conclusion. But not quite: the formal end to the Syrian war will only come with Turkey’s withdrawal from the conflict.

At the beginning of the war, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once an ally of Assad, was so enraged by the Syrian President’s slaughter of predominantly Sunni civilians that he turned his country into one of the war’s main external sponsors. Arming and hosting both Sunni rebels and their ineffective civilian leadership alike, and taking in 3.6 million refugees, the war would have taken a very different shape without Turkey’s involvement. Large swathes of northern Syria are now under Turkish control, whether in a hands-off overlordship that leaves day-to-day management to jihadist groups, as in Idlib, or in a soft annexation to forestall or roll back Kurdish autonomy, as in other conquered areas of the north and northeast.

The Turkish presidential election, whose first round is today, looks set to upset this dynamic. Erdogan’s secular-nationalist rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the frontrunner, has pledged to “turn Turkey’s foreign policy around 180 degrees”. Further, he declared that “within a maximum of two years, we will reconcile with Syria, and we will fully restore our normal relations with it, and we will reopen embassies between the two countries, and we will return the Syrians residing in Turkey, who numbered more than 3 million people, to their country.”

But how different will Turkish foreign policy actually be, in Syria and elsewhere? Kilicdaroglu’s CHP party, uneasily balancing support from the pro-Kurdish HDP and nationalist IYI parties, may be liberal on social issues compared to Erdogan’s Islamist AKP, but it is still, as is the norm in Turkish politics, deeply nationalist and with strong veins of anti-American sentiment coursing through its body. 

As the Turkish analyst Guney Yildiz observes, “Balancing between Russia and NATO has been a long-standing strategy in Turkish politics. Nationalism has been a consistent determiner of the country’s foreign policy.” For Yildiz, while “a new government under Kilicdaroglu could bring greater institutionalization and cooperation with the West… entrenched factors such as the Kurdish issue and anti-Western sentiment will ensure continuity remains dominant.” 

Similarly, Kilicdaroglu has followed Erdogan in furious diatribes against Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as threatening Greece over the Aegean islands, saying, “Let [Greece] keep fighting with Erdogan, it’s almost time. Then we will talk about arming the islands and pointing guns at our citizens.”

With Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran meeting in Moscow earlier this week to explore a tentative rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, Kilicdaroglu’s proposed normalisation policy may not veer too markedly away from Erdogan’s own grudgingly realistic new path. In any case, winning an election and actually taking power are, in Erdogan’s Turkey, two entirely different things. Whatever happens this weekend, it seems likely that for Turkey, the decade-defining Syrian war is almost over.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.