By Arab News
By Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
In a recent article, the Turkish pro-government media outlet Daily Sabah introduced the concept of the “Aleppo model” — a scheme to make areas in northern Syria safe, secure and livable in order to encourage the repatriation of Syrian refugees. This follows a survey by the UN refugee agency UNHCR that showed 70 percent of those displaced are unwilling to return for at least five years despite the difficult conditions and discrimination they face in host countries. Refugees cited security concerns, as well as lack of basic services and work opportunities. What does the Aleppo model mean for Syrian President Bashar Assad?
The refugee question was a main point of contention in the recent Turkish elections. The opposition focused on the issue, accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of maintaining an open-door policy, and proposed normalizing relations with Assad as a solution to the problem. However, Erdogan’s efforts in this regard have yielded little, mainly due to the rigidity of the Syrian regime, which has based talks with Turkiye on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from the northwest of the country, a totally unrealistic demand since it would leave opponents to the regime at the mercy of Assad.
Turkiye also cannot leave its borders unprotected and vulnerable to terrorist attacks and drug trafficking. Here, Erdogan faces a dilemma. He wants to ensure the return of refugees, one of his main campaign promises. However, returning them is almost impossible while Assad is in power. Ahmet Uysal, head of ORSAM, a Turkish research center focusing on Arab countries, recently published an article in which he said that Assad is unwilling and incapable of securing the refugees’ return, adding that those who have returned have been subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and rape. Assad does not want to see the people who opposed him come back home.
Assad is also incapable of providing them with their basic needs. Even areas loyal to Assad are witnessing protests demanding his departure due to the dire state of the country’s economy. Hence, the most logical step to take is to bypass Assad and negotiate with his patrons. Daily Sabah mentioned that Turkiye is in discussions with Syria and Russia. With talks between Turkiye and Syria at a standstill, Erdogan is probably banking on Russia to make the “Aleppo model” a reality. It is inconceivable that Assad will willingly cede territory to Turkiye, having asked the latter to withdraw before starting any discussion.
Any joint administration or the presence of Assad forces will also deter refugees from going back. As Uysal detailed, experience has shown that despite an amnesty and promises of safety, opponents of the regime who returned were subject to arrest and punishment. Also, Assad has not acted in line with Russian interests, which are to end the war and begin reconstruction. On the contrary, he has refused to make any concessions to the opposition. In this respect, he has skillfully played the Russians against the Iranians, positioning himself as the reference between the two.
However, due to the Ukraine war, Turkiye is proving to be of more importance to Russia. Meanwhile, all Turkish incursions have been approved either by Russia or the US. If Turkiye acts to put Aleppo under its control, it will be a fatal blow to Assad. Aleppo is the commercial heart of Syria. Losing the city will strengthen the protest movement across the country and, ultimately, force Iran and Assad to compromise. Hence, in addition to creating a suitable environment for a safe, voluntary and dignified return for refugees in accordance with UN resolution 2254, the Aleppo model can help break the status quo and force a solution on Syria.
If the Aleppo model succeeds — with Russia and Turkiye bringing stability, Qatar financing reconstruction, and refugees returning in large numbers — it will be a game changer. It could set an example for other arrangements. Why not have a Daraa model, whereby Russia enters into a similar agreement with Jordan? Despite normalization with Assad, Jordan has not seen any real improvement in the regime’s behavior, and is still vulnerable to illegal drug and weapons smuggling.
The Aleppo model is likely to garner Arab acquiescence, if not endorsement, since normalization with Assad led to nowhere. At the Arab League Summit in May, the Syrian leader was supposed to show some goodwill, but instead displayed only defiance. In a nutshell, the success of the Aleppo model will show that Assad is a burden for Arab countries as well as for his allies, and is very much dispensable.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.