​​Operation “Sheikh Maqsoud”: Does Damascus provide Ankara with GPS coordinates?

Director of the National Security Office in Syria, Ali Mamlouk, and head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan - (modified by Enab Baladi)

Director of the National Security Office in Syria, Ali Mamlouk, and head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan - (modified by Enab Baladi)


The pace of assassinations in the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has escalated in recent months, as Turkish intelligence announces on an almost daily basis that members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been “neutralized” in different areas of northern Syria.

But the most effective operation was announced last week and took place inside the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud in the city of Aleppo, which is under the control of the Syrian regime. This opened the door to questions about the possibility of the latter providing Turkey with the locations of SDF fighters.

On 28 September, Turkish intelligence announced the “neutralization” of Sabah Uğur, an official in the banned and designated terrorist PKK party, who is listed on the “red notice” for wanted persons of the Turkish Ministry of the Interior.

The intelligence operation in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, which is under the control of the SDF, came after a follow-up by a “special team,” while the operation did not clarify whether the “neutralization” resulted in the killing, detention, or bringing of Sabah Uğur to areas under Turkish control.

Turkish intelligence usually does not carry out its operations inside the areas under the control of the Syrian regime, such as the city of Aleppo, while Turkish forces repeatedly target people and leaders of Kurdish parties they consider “terrorists” in the areas under the control of the SDF in northern Syria and the Syrian National Army (SNA) areas in northwestern Syria.

What is the role of Syrian intelligence?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on 28 September that negotiations with the Syrian regime are taking place through the Turkish intelligence agency, noting that according to its results, the “road map” will be determined.

Indirectly, Erdogan demanded the Syrian regime to eliminate “terrorists” in Syria, saying, “The fight against terrorism cannot be unilateral, so the other party must also have a positive approach towards that so that we can obtain good results.”

The intelligence cooperation between Turkey and the Syrian regime has not stopped since 2011, based on the cooperation that “resulted in the handover of the dissident leader in the (Free Syrian Army) Hussein Harmoush,” the political analyst Ibrahim Kaban told Enab Baladi via electronic correspondence.

Kaban believes that the Syrian regime can provide information to Turkish intelligence.

“Some of the assassinations that took place by Turkish drones were based on the information provided by the Syrian intelligence while noting that there are accusations of Russia providing information to Turkey as well,” he added.

The Turkish analyst pointed out that the Kurdish internal security forces (Asayish) have information that the Syrian regime may move towards giving “coordinates” to Turkey to carry out special operations in the region, which the political analyst described as “not surprising.”

On the other hand, academic and political researcher Muhannad Hafızoğlu ruled out any intelligence cooperation of this kind, justifying that Turkish intelligence does not need information from the Syrian side because it has mechanisms to know the movements of the PKK leaders and members, whether they are operating in Iraq or Syria.

Previously, members of the SDF defected and headed to Turkey with precious information, such as the defection of the former official spokesman of the SDF, Talal Selo, and his statement to the media about information regarding the forces’ activity in northern Syria.

Hafızoğlu told Enab Baladi that the intelligence cooperation between the two sides had not reached the point of finding a ground for real cooperation, as differences exist even in the basics, the most important of which is the definition of “terrorism and identification of terrorists” from the opposition.

He added that there is no confidence on the part of the Turkish side in the Syrian regime due to the continuous cooperation between the SDF and the regime. Turkey has an “apprehension” supported by the reality that wherever the SDF is located, there are regime members, noting that many of the Turkish targetings of SDF-controlled areas have resulted in deaths and injuries of regime forces.

What is the future of relationships?

Relations between Ankara and Damascus had witnessed a state of tension since 11 August when the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, revealed a “short” conversation he had with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement meeting held in October 2021 in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

Cavusoglu stressed at the time the need to reach “reconciliation” between the opposition and the Syrian regime, considering that there would be no “lasting peace without achieving this.”

These statements were followed by demonstrations in separate areas of northwestern Syria, rejecting “reconciliation” and emphasizing the continuity of the Syrian revolution.

Erdogan also expressed his desire to meet the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, if he comes to the summit that was held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in order to hold him responsible for what happened in Syria and the possibility of its division, during his speech in a closed meeting of the Justice and Development Party.

Erdogan also stated on 19 August that Turkey’s concern is not “defeating al-Assad,” but rather reaching a political solution and reaching an agreement between the opposition and the regime.

After the emergence of many of these indicators about the trend towards normalization between Turkey and the Syrian regime, recent Syrian and Turkish statements ruled out the hypotheses of rapprochement.

On 24 September, Mekdad denied the negotiations on the normalization of relations between Damascus and Ankara, considering that Turkey’s failure to fulfill its promises under the Astana (talks) framework is the only obstacle to the peace process in Syria.

This came one day after statements in the same context by the Turkish presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, who said that contacts with the Syrian regime are taking place at the level of the intelligence services, stressing that there are no plans for political contact with Damascus at present.

Analyst Ibrahim Kaban explained that the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Turkey is based on mutual interests, as the Syrian regime demands the elimination of the opposition and the extradition of its leaders, while Turkey wants solutions to strike the SDF in cooperation with the regime.

In Kaban’s opinion, there is no prospect for relations between the two parties, as the Syrian regime cannot present any initiative to the Turks to strike the SDF, due to the support of the International Coalition, except for intelligence information, so relations cannot develop above the intelligence level.

The co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Saleh Muslim, expected that the rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime would reach an inevitable end, which he likened to a “divorce.”

He also likened, during his statements, published on 2 October, the intelligence meetings that took place between the regime and Turkey to a “forced marriage.”

Muslim justified his expectations that the contradictions and disagreements are “big” between Damascus and Ankara and that they are “too deep” to be resolved to fight “the Autonomous Administration” and “part of the Syrian people,” but he welcomed the rapprochement if it achieves a political solution.

For his part, researcher Muhannad Hafızoğlu believes that the level of relations is measured by the scale of security and political consensus.

“Since the intelligence cooperation has not produced any different reality for many years, the rooting of the dispute increases,” Hafızoğlu said, citing the reasons for the dispute that the political decision in Syria is not in the hands of the Syrian regime but rather in the hands of Tehran and Moscow.

He stressed that the regime cannot provide real guarantees regarding the refugee file and their return in light of UN reports that the internal situation in Syria is not ready for the return of refugees.

In addition, the regime’s foreign ministry’s continuous statements that Turkey is an “occupying country” for part of the Syrian geography are “absolutely unacceptable” for Turkey, according to Hafızoğlu.

On 15 September, Reuters reported that the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency, Hakan Fidan, met with the director of the Syrian regime’s National Security Office, Ali Mamlouk, recently this week in the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to a “regional source loyal to Damascus.

According to the agency’s citation of four unnamed sources, Fidan has held several meetings with Mamlouk over the past few weeks, which it regarded as an indication of Russian efforts to encourage “breaking the ice” between countries on opposite sides of the Syrian file.

The meeting assessed how the two countries’ foreign ministers might eventually meet, according to whom Reuters presented as a senior Turkish official, in addition to a Turkish security source as well.


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