Former top diplomat urges Turkey to use ‘corona diplomacy’ to repair ties with Syria

‘Syria needs help and Turkey can provide that help,’ wrote Faruk Logoglu.
Wednesday 01/04/2020
A Turkish military convoy drives on the highway, between Bab al-Hawa crossing on the border with Turkey and the rebel-held town of Ariha, in the Syrian province of Idlib. (AFP)
Seeing catastrophe. A Turkish military convoy drives on the highway, between Bab al-Hawa crossing on the border with Turkey and the rebel-held town of Ariha, in the Syrian province of Idlib. (AFP)

ISTANBUL--The coronavirus pandemic could provide a chance for Turkey to repair relations with its southern neighbour Syria after years of enmity, a former high-ranking Turkish diplomat says.

The call comes as Russia, Turkey’s partner in Syria and at the same time the most important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is pushing Ankara to start talks with the Syrian leadership and the United Arab Emirates, seen as a regional rival by Turkey, is reaching out to Assad.

Faruk Logoglu, a former undersecretary in the Turkish Foreign Ministry and a former deputy leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), laid out the case for what he called “corona diplomacy” in an article for the online news platform Duvar English on March 29.

“If the pandemic hits Syria, the results could be catastrophic,” Logoglu wrote. “Syria needs help and Turkey can provide that help.”

Logoglu said Turkey should call for a country-wide ceasefire in Syria and ask the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to this end.

“The Syrian Government must on its part be willing to cooperate. Then contacts should be initiated by Turkey with the Syrian Government in Damascus to develop a joint plan of action to fight the pandemic,” he wrote.

Such a move would require a radical repositioning of Turkey’s Syria policies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Assad’s removal from power while his government has supported some rebel groups fighting Damascus. Logoglu said Ankara’s “policies have a large share of the responsibility for the continuation of the war in Syria.”

In February, Erdogan sent thousands of soldiers into the Syrian province of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold, to stop an assault by Assad’s forces. An agreement between Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin established an uneasy truce in the region but some fighting is continuing.

Russia has long called for a dialogue between Turkey and Syria to ease tensions. The intelligence chiefs of the two countries met in Moscow in January, but Erdogan has so far ruled out talks with Assad.

Turkish government officials did not respond to a request for comment on Logoglu’s proposal. Analysts said while a “corona diplomacy” could produce positive consequence for Turkey, it was unlikely that Ankara would follow Logoglu’s advice.

“Such a diplomatic initiative would be good for both sides,” Hurcan Asli Aksoy, deputy head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, a think-tank in Berlin, said by e-mail. “It could even provide an exit strategy for Turkey to get out of the Syrian conflict.”

“But Ankara shows no inclination to talk with the Assad regime or to send humanitarian aid because of corona. I think Erdogan would not initiate [a dialogue] because he has always demonised the Assad regime and used this for domestic politics.”

Turkey sent face masks and other protective gear to Italy and Spain, two NATO partners that have been hit severely hard by the coronavirus outbreak, on April 1, according to the government in Ankara. But there was no word on aid for Syria. Damascus has so far reported ten coronavirus infections and two deaths, but doctors and witnesses say there are more. Aid groups say a spread of the virus among hundreds of thousands of refugees in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe.

Karol Wasilewski, head of the Middle East and Africa Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, said the pandemic could even worsen relations between Turkey and Syria.

“I think Ankara would rather use this ‘opportunity’ to help Syrians who currently live in territories controlled by Turkey to score PR political points by demonstrating it is the only force interested in helping Syrian refugees and that it is more effective in taking care of Syrians than the government of Syria,” Wasilewski said by e-mail.

Turkey has rejected accusations that it is “weaponising” water amid the coronavirus crisis to pressure Kurdish regions in north-eastern Syria.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on March 31 that Turkish authorities had interrupted water supply to the Hasakah province that is outside a strip of Syrian territory occupied by Turkish forces last autumn. It said the water supply was stopped at a water station near the Turkish-controlled town of Ras al-Ayn.

“In the midst of a global pandemic that is overloading sophisticated governance and infrastructure systems, Turkish authorities have been cutting off the water supply to regions most under strain in Syria,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said in a statement headlined “Turkey/Syria: Weaponising Water in Global Pandemic?” A reliable water supply is key to fight coronavirus as frequent handwashing is one of the most effective methods to stop the spread of the virus.

Big parts of north-eastern Syria are under the control of the Kurdish militia Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara because it is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting Ankara since 1984.

In response to Page’s statement, a Turkish government official said the reason for problems with the water supply was an “unstable electricity supply in the region.”

“The Assad regime should prioritise repair and maintenance of the electricity infrastructure in the region rather than initiating a joint smear campaign against Turkey with the terrorist organisation PKK/YPG, its long-time partner.”