Expected Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, but without rush
Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima
In light of the latest international developments based on the Russian war on Ukraine and Turkey’s policy of “zero problems” before the Turkish presidential elections next year, Arab and Turkish media outlets uncovered a rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Turkey.
On 4 April, the Turkish Hürriyet newspaper revealed Turkish deliberations to initiate a dialogue with the Syrian regime on three important issues.
Turkish official sources, unnamed by Hürriyet, said that “there are opinions that Turkey’s role in recent months, especially with regard to resolving the Ukraine war, and Russia’s involvement, may be a suitable time to resolve the Syrian issue.”
Al-Modon, a Lebanese newspaper, also quoted on 14 April a source in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey about an “intelligence” meeting between Turkey and the Syrian regime in the Russian capital, Moscow.
The meeting discussed the security and intelligence files only, and the aim was to “commit to the understandings” concluded between Moscow and Ankara in Syria, al-Modon added.
The reason for the meeting in Moscow was due to “the Kremlin’s fears that the repercussions of Ukraine will spill over into Syria,” without mentioning additional details about the identity of those attending the meeting, according to the source.
On 16 December 2021, the Russian Sputnik agency said that Major Haidara Jawad, an officer in the Syrian regime forces, was participating in a meeting between the two sides in which they agreed on several items “in the interest of the two countries,” including preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and the extension of sovereignty over the entire Syrian territory.
Jawad also talked about the possibility of intelligence cooperation with Turkey to “expel American agents (Syrian Democratic Forces) from the east of the Euphrates in the next stage, and return the region to the homeland.”
However, the Turkish source denied this, indicating that the meeting did not address issues at this level but rather issues related to security.
Ankara is not in a hurry
Mahmoud Alloush, a researcher in international relations, told Enab Baladi that the meeting between the regime and the Turkish government, if it occurs, does not necessarily mean a shift in Ankara’s position on the Syrian regime, as Ankara and the regime have previously held meetings at the intelligence level to discuss security issues.
Adding that such meetings do not mean a shift in Ankara’s attitude towards the regime, as Ankara does not seem to be in a hurry regarding restoring relations with Damascus.
Alloush believes that Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine conflict may constitute an opportunity for Turkey to impose its conditions in any possible political dialogue with the regime, but the current conditions are still not suitable for raising the level of talks from security to political.
The conditions that Ankara leaked to the press ultimately require a political settlement of the war, and Ankara is still far from such a settlement, he concluded.
Dr. Nasr al-Youssef, an expert in Russian affairs, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the security meetings between the regime and Turkey have never been interrupted, and neither the Syrian regime nor the Turks have denied any of it.
Security meetings between the hostile countries continue despite the tense relations between them, such as the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Nevertheless, security coordination continues to exchange experiences and information due to the presence of common matters and concerns, and if there is an improvement in the relations between the two countries in the future, it will be under the pretext of security.
Al-Youssef believes that Moscow is the perfect place for holding such meetings between Ankara and Damascus, and it is in Russia’s interest to keep the situation stable in the region due to the possibility that Turkey will play a role in destabilizing or maintaining stability in the Syrian file, especially in the northern and eastern regions of Syria.
Neither Russia nor Turkey can significantly influence the Syrian east, while the keys to the northwestern region are in the hands of Turkey and therefore, Russia wants to focus all its attention on the Ukrainian file at the present time, and it does not need disturbing factors in Syria, especially in the areas under the control of The Turks in one way or another, according to al-Youssef.
Reviving and bid to regain full control
The Syrian regime’s interest lies in building normal ties with Turkey because of its military presence on Syrian territory and because it is a pivotal country in the Syrian issue.
Turkey is one of the countries that have an important role in Syria and still does not recognize the regime’s legitimacy, according to the Turkish affairs expert, Dr. Saeed al-Haj.
The regime may see that the normal interaction between it and Turkey may be a prelude to its demand that it withdraw its forces from Syria.
It is precisely for this reason that Turkey does not seem to see that it has a fundamental interest in recognizing the regime as the legitimate government of Syria because this may once again be a prelude to asking it to withdraw its forces, which it is not ready for that until the moment, in addition to the issue of refugees and many other issues.
Accordingly, al-Haj believes that Turkey is still keen to keep this relationship at the security level and to a minimum.
And communication may sometimes touch on some military dimensions in the field, but this does not show that there is any Turkish tendency so far to establish normal official and political relations and recognize the legitimacy of the regime.
Therefore, if any movement or change arises in the Syrian scene, it will be relative to Turkey’s interest and not pressure on it, and this encourages or supports the idea that these meetings will continue for some period of time in the security dimension and not in the political dimension.
The region as a whole is witnessing shifts or repositioning at the very least, including the openness of some Arab parties to the regime at a time when good relations with Turkey are being built, but the interactions have less impact on the Turkish position al-Haj assumed.
Meanwhile, Ankara could be affected by any radical change in a project related to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, but its position will not change due to the change in Arab attitudes towards the Syrian regime, the expert said.
What is the interest of Turkey?
The sources of the Hürriyet newspaper said that if the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement succeeds, it could be in the interest of Turkey, and it could also be an opportunity to restore relations with the Syrian regime to ensure the return of Syrian refugees to their country.
In this regard, Turkey says that there are three things that are indispensable according to Hürriyet, which are reserving the monolithic structure, preserving the unity of the country, and ensuring the safety of refugees returning.
Turkey hosts nearly three million and 700 thousand Syrian refugees, according to statistics from the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management.
The Turkish military forces are targeting SDF positions, which it considers as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In turn, the SDF retaliates by targeting areas of influence of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) north of Aleppo.
Turkey classifies the SDF on its terrorist lists, and the Turkish army, along with the Syrian National Army, launched two military operations against it, the Olive Branch Operation in 2018 in the Afrin region, northwest of Aleppo, and the Peace Spring Operation, east of the Euphrates in October 2019.
Researcher Mahmoud Alloush believes that the SDF and refugee issues cast a great pressure on Turkey’s policy in Syria, which has changed Ankara’s priorities in recent years and made it more focused on how to meet the challenges related to these two problems, with a tendency to implicitly acknowledge that Assad won the war.
Where does Moscow stand?
Rami al-Shaer, former diplomat and advisor to the Russian Foreign Ministry, in an interview with Enab Baladi, ruled out that the Turkish-Syrian intelligence meeting took place recently in Moscow.
“Russia is making continuous efforts to bring about a rapprochement in contacts between Turkey and the regime in Damascus at all levels, not only in terms of security and intelligence files,” al-Shaer said.
Adding that Russia is aware of the importance of normalizing Syrian-Turkish relations, because of its great importance for Syria, especially with regard to rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure and reviving the Syrian economy as a neighbor with a 900 kilometers borderline.
Turkey has great potential to help the regime in all fields, including reconstruction, in addition to other issues, the most important of which is the case of refugees, displaced people, and border security.
Also, Turkey seeks to preserve the unity of Syrian territory and reach a consensus between the opposition and the regime and plays a key and effective role in the Astana talks along with Russia and Iran, according to al-Shaer.
UAE as encouraging factor
The visit of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on 18 March is an important step toward its acceptance on the international scene.
This visit came at a time when relations between Abu Dhabi and Ankara have improved, and Turkey can turn this process into a positive one if it takes into account the new phase of relations with the UAE.
If this succeeds, at least half of the refugees will return to Syria, according to what government sources told the Hürriyet newspaper.
Turkish-UAE relations have witnessed many tensions in the past due to several thorny issues between them, such as Turkey’s military support for Qatar after the 2017 Gulf crisis and the diplomatic and economic blockade imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar.
Turkey opposed the UAE policy in both Libya and Syria, which contradicts its military operations in northwestern and eastern Syria, accusing it of creating a campaign targeting the Turkish lira.
Today, however, the two countries returned to normal relations, and their officials exchanged visits within the framework of Turkey’s tendency to “zero problems” with countries with which it was brought together by conflicts during the previous years.
The Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, expressed last February the Syrian willingness to normalize relations with Turkey but under conditions.
This came during a press conference at the Valdai forum in Moscow, in which Mekdad participated and said, “Syria and Turkey are neighbors, and we have a long history and 500 years of occupation, which are enough for us to understand each other.”
Mekdad added that there are several things that must be achieved for the return of Syrian-Turkish relations as withdrawing its forces from Syrian territory, stopping supporting “terrorists,” not depriving the Syrian people of water resources, and building relations with Syria on the basis of mutual respect.
“I think that if we stick to these points, our relations can improve,” he concluded.
But this welcome does not seem to go beyond a media pulse, as an analysis of the Russian VPO Analytics website sees that Ankara’s expectation of reconciliation with Damascus could become a reality in the event of reducing the Russian presence in Syria, limiting Iran’s influence there, and if the US refuses to support SDF in the northeast.
The analysis concluded that all the conditions currently required by the two countries for the return of relations are not achievable, and even in the long run, it is unlikely that the regime’s government will start a serious dialogue with Ankara without ending the Turkish presence on its soil.
But it seems that only a radical change in the Turkish political scene after the June 2023 elections will allow talk about serious preconditions for this kind of dialogue.
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