Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s second largest party and the traditional party of government throughout the 20th century, the secular Kemalist CHP, has announced his intentions of holding direct talks with the Syrian government in spite of the severing of relations between the government in Damascus and Ankara. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the Turkish Republic’s oldest political party, having been established by modern Turkey’s founder Ataturk in 1919.
The CHP has always expressed scepticism at President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party’s stance on the Syrian conflict, which until fairly late in 2017, was consistently in favour of pursuing the overthrow of the Syrian government. While Turkey quietly dropped any lingering ambitions of overthrowing the Syrian government in 2017 and has joined with Syrian allies Russia and Iran to from the Astana Group for peace in Syria, little movement in public has been made to reconcile the neighbouring states, although unverified reports have indicated that at a low-level, certain diplomats in Ankara and Damascus are communicating with one another.
In November of 2017, Erdogan hinted at normalisation of relations with Syria. In a non-committal but conciliatory statement, Erdogan said,
“Whatever happens tomorrow, it all depends on the circumstances. It is inexpedient to say ‘never’. The doors of politics are always open until the last moment”.
In other words, the door to official rapprochement remains open on the part of Erdogan. Erdogan’s relationship with the opposition CHP has been incredibly fraught, with the CHP accusing Erodgan of corruption while Erdogan stands accused of working to undermine the secular Kemalist ideology which is implicit in the Turkish Constitution. However, a moment of reprieve has come in the form of Erdogan’s pivot away from an anti-Damascus position to one which revolves around the pacification of Kurdish terror groups operating in Syria. The CHP is staunchly opposed to the presence of PKK aligned YPG terrorists in Syria. Ironically, early in Erdogan’s Prime Ministerial career when he tried to engage in an accord with the PKK, it was the CHP who accused Erdogan of being soft on Kurdish terrorism.
With both the Turkish government and the CHP opposition openly indicating that they understand the YPG to be a common enemy of both Syria and Turkey, the opportunity for at least a private or low level rapprochement has increased dramatically vis-a-vis this time last year.
To understand how the CHP might play a role in fomenting an official governmental level rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, one must examine the early stages of the Russo-Turkish rapprochement of 2016.
In November of 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian Fighter Jet which Ankara claimed violated Turkish airspace even though Russia denied this. Furthermore, most international observers agreed that even if the Russian jet violated Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds, Ankara’s reaction was cruel and disproportional. As a result, many justifiably enraged Russians called for war, even though privately the Russian and Turkish leadership agreed to avoid this kind of escalation. Nevertheless, Russia severely downgraded relations with Turkey.
In November of 2016, only months after Turkey and Russia agreed to explore the possibility of re-establishing normal relations, the leader of the popular and influential Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky went on a good will mission to Turkey. During his visit, the Turkish speaking Zhirinovsky held public meetings with major officials, as well has conducting a private meeting with President Erodgan.
Zhirinovsky who is an expert in Turkish history and politics was widely thought to be testing the waters in order to see how deep and wide a full Russo-Turkish rapprochement could be. Turkey may well want to do something similar with a CHP delegation to Syria, even is it is only minor CHP officials who travel to Damascus rather than the party leader. This way, if little progress is made, Turkey can blame a ‘rogue’ opposition for acting in an unofficial capacity, but if the meetings are productive, it could lead to the kind of full rapprochement reminiscent to that which transpired between Moscow and Ankara which fomented in the months subsequent to Zhirinovsky’s visit to Turkey. While the ruling AK Party and the CHP have a far more hostile relationship with one another than the Russian government has with Zhirinovsky’s opposition LDPR, this does not prohibit the potential for a similar situation to be attempted.
The recent statement by CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu gives hope that such a thing might soon happen. Kilicdaroglu has been quoted as saying, “We are now considering and discussing the topic, of whether to go or not to go to Syria. But we want a channel for contacts with the central leadership to be opened”. He further said,
“If peace is ensured between Turkey and Syria in the near future, if rapprochement starts and dialogue on the issue of territorial integrity begin, it will be possible only by a direct meeting of Turkey and Syria, without any intermediaries”.
The clear implication of this statement is that while it is almost certain that Turkey and Syria connect with one another via Russia and Iran, a lasting peace can only be achieved if Damascus and Ankara are able to speak directly. As neighbouring states who prior to 2011 had fully normal and even healthy relations, it is in the interest of both countries to take a realistic approach to rapprochement, even if it means hiding the details of such a rapprochement from a Syrian public who remain hateful of Turkey’s invasion in 2015, as well as a Turkish public who remain partly bewitched by anti-Syrian propaganda.