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Turkey’s Erdogan Wants to Mend Fences with Syria’s Assad After Brutal Civil War

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday he plans to invite Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to visit Ankara and mend relations that were strained by Turkey’s support for rebel groups during the long and bloody Syrian civil war.

“We will extend our invitation to Assad,” Erdogan said during an interview with Turkish media.

“With this invitation, we want to restore Turkey-Syria relations to the same level as in the past. Our invitation may be extended at any time,” he said.

Erdogan did not explain why he did not simply invite Assad to visit now, instead of talking about the wonderful invitation he plans to extend at some point in the very near future. 

“We have now arrived at a point where if Bashar Assad takes a step towards improving relations with Turkey, we will also show that approach towards him,” the Turkish president said, hinting that he expects Assad to make some sort of opening move.

Erdogan said Assad would be smart to pick up that phone soon because the region is supposedly beginning to respect Turkey’s stature as a diplomatic power.

“Putin and the Iraqi prime minister have an approach for talks to be in Turkey. We are talking about mediation everywhere, why not with our neighbor?” he said.

Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Astana, Kazakhstan, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit last Wednesday. Putin was amusingly curt in dismissing Erdogan’s effusive offers to serve as a broker for Russia-Ukraine peace talks.

On Monday, the Kremlin put a little ice on Erdogan’s bruises by telling Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan that Russia would love to have a “peace platform” somewhere, and Turkey would be as good a host as any.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peksov claimed Moscow has “never refused to negotiate,” although the Kremlin’s response to Erdogan’s offer of mediation was literally “no, it’s not possible” — and Peskov himself delivered it.

“On the contrary, we have always favored negotiations involving all interested parties. While there is no such platform currently, you can only agree with Mr. Fidan on this point,” Peskov claimed on Monday after meeting with the Turkish foreign minister.

Erdogan and Assad have been doing a weird little dance around getting together and patching up their differences ever since the beginning of this year, with each of the authoritarian leaders urging the other to make the first move. Erdogan began hinting that he wanted better relations with Damascus after his party suffered a humiliating election defeat in April.

Two weeks ago, Assad said he was “open” to mending ties with Turkey, provided the Turkish government adopts Syria’s views on “sovereignty, territorial integrity in its entirety, the fight against terrorism, and terrorist organization.”

In other words, Assad wants Erdogan to stop supporting Syrian opposition groups and get Turkish troops off Syrian soil. Turkey has invaded Syria several times to push Kurdish militia groups back from the border, and Erdogan threatened to do it again only a few months ago. The Turkish government regards all Kurdish armed groups as extensions of the PKK, the violent Kurdish separatist party in Turkey.

Erdogan said exactly one year ago that he would not agree to meet with Assad if he demanded unilateral withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria as a precondition for talks. Assad emphasis last week on Turkey recognizing his “sovereignty” implied he still has that precondition in mind.

Reuters reported on Monday that Syrian refugees in Turkey are terrified that Erdogan and Assad will get together and settle their differences because Erdogan might decide to force them all back to Syria and let Assad have his way with them.

Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country and many Turks are losing patience with them. Violence against Syrian refugees is reportedly rising, but even so, human rights activists say Turkey is still much safer for the refugees than Syria.

The government of Iraq has suggested it might host meetings between Turkey and Syria, but it has not set a date or indicated whether it expects Erdogan and Assad to attend in person.

“We are doing what is necessary, and the remaining details require extensive discussions with the concerned parties,” the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said on Sunday.

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