Russia accelerates Ankara-Damascus rapprochement on impact of Turkish attacks
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The recent Turkish-Russian statements have stirred the slack water about reviving Turkish ties with the Syrian regime. Such a move comes a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about the possibility of reconsidering his relations with Syria following his country’s presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in June 2023.
The rapprochement endeavor has escalated as Ankara prepares for a military ground operation against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria after an air escalation that has been going on for days.
A possible ground attack, which international and regional parties have warned about, could confuse the region, change the map of military control in Syria, and create new understandings in it.
To revisit ties with Assad
On 17 November, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he could revisit relations with Bashar al-Assad following the presidential and parliamentary elections set for June next year.
“When asked about a possible meeting with the Syrian president, Erdogan said there was no eternal resentment or quarreling in politics, according to a readout of comments he made during his flight back from Bali,” Reuters reported.
Three days after Erdogan’s words, Turkey launched the “claw-sword” operation against the SDF-held areas in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, on 20 November, in response to the bombing in the crowded Istiklal Street in Istanbul on the 13th from the same month.
Devlet Bahçeli, head of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party and an ally of the Justice and Development Party (AK), called on Erdogan on 22 November to meet with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and said that “a common will must be formed against terrorist organizations.”
Bahçeli stressed the necessity of starting a “high-level” meeting between Ankara and Damascus, called on the two countries to cooperate against “terrorist” organizations, and stressed that the channels of dialogue between the two parties must be continued at the highest level.
Abdulkadir Selvi of the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper revealed in his column on 24 November that Erdogan’s meeting with al-Assad is expected to take place before the Turkish presidential elections, after a meeting attended by Selvi of the parliamentary bloc of the AK party, in which Erdogan participated.
Selvi assured that the reports that correspondence is being conducted through Iran and Russia are incorrect and that negotiations with the Syrian regime have risen to a level above the intelligence services for a while.
Escalation against SDF continues
Reports of revisiting ties between Turkey and the Syrian regime coincided with a Turkish military escalation in the SDF areas represented by Operation “Claw-Sword,” which is considered the broadest and most intense since Turkey’s reliance on air operations in Syria, compared to the Operation “Winter-Eagle” last February and the airstrikes that preceded it and began in August 2021.
The Turkish escalation included statements by Erdogan, the Minister of Interior of Turkey, Suleiman Soylu, and the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, which implied the continuation of military action against “terrorist” organizations, and that it was not limited to air strikes.
Erdogan ruled out limiting the operation to air strikes, saying, “We will take the decision and the step regarding the size of the ground forces that should join the operation.”
The Turkish President also repeated his threats regarding the ground attack, vowing that the strikes “are only the beginning” and vowed to “eradicate (terrorists) from the areas of Tal Rifaat, Manbij, and Ayn al-Arab, in northern Syria.
The Turkish aerial bombing went beyond sites or leaders of the Kurdish parties that Turkey considers “terrorist” and expanded to target oil sites that are considered one of the main sources of funding for the SDF, including the Tigris Oil station north of the town of al-Jawadiya in the eastern countryside of Qamishli city and the Suwaida Gas plant in the countryside al-Malikiyah, east of al-Hasakah city.
On 25 November, Akar announced that 326 “terrorists” had been “neutralized” in Operation “Claw-Sword” in northern Syria and Iraq.
While three Turks were killed, on 21 November, in the Karkamış town near the Syrian border, as a result of shelling from the SDF-controlled area.
Also, the SDF’s rocket attack on Azaz town north of Aleppo killed five civilians and wounded five others on 22 November.
Russia ready to mediate Syria-Turkey talks
Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special presidential envoy for Syria, told Sputnik agency that Russia is ready to mediate the organization of negotiations between Syria and Turkey at different levels.
“The issue of Turkish-Syrian rapprochement and normalization of relations has been singled out by our President Vladimir Putin as a priority — the settlement of the Syrian conflict itself largely depends on this. The issue is very important, and, of course, we are ready to provide all possible support and mediation assistance for the organization of such negotiations at various levels,” Lavrentiev told the Russian agency.
The diplomat added that “contacts between the sides at different levels must be continued, as there are a lot of issues that Turkey and Syria can resolve through direct communication with each other, including, of course, at the level of foreign ministers.”
According to the diplomat, Moscow is ready to provide a venue for a meeting between Erdogan and al-Assad.
“I think Moscow will be ready to provide [a platform for the meeting] if there is a mutual desire of the two sides. I do not even doubt it,” Lavrentiev told Sputnik.
Lavrentiev also expressed hope that “Turkey may still refrain from conducting a ground operation in Syria, adding that Kurds’ increased activity in the country is likely directed by the US.”
Abdulkadir Selvi of the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper mentioned in his column that Erdogan’s meeting with the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on the sidelines of the opening match of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar on 20 November, came within the framework of using football diplomacy since the two presidents met for the first time since al-Sisi came to power in 2014.
Erdogan’s meeting with al-Assad is expected before the Turkish presidential elections, and it could take place within the framework of “Putin’s diplomacy,” Selvi added.
Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Bridzhe told Enab Baladi that the Russian statements are an attempt to pressure Turkey regarding the ground military operation. Russia believes Turkey may shuffle the cards in the Syrian arena, harming Russia’s interest.
Bridzhe believes that the main goal of Russia pushing Turkey to approach Damascus diplomatically is that the SDF and other Kurdish organizations may eventually go to Damascus, and they may normalize their relations with Damascus, and they will have no ally left.
The Russian analyst expected that the US would not go far in supporting the Kurdish-led forces.
What about the SDF?
The Turkish military escalation and the threat of a ground operation were accompanied by many international reactions, warnings of an exacerbation of the situation, and calls to stop the escalation, most notably from the US, SDF’s key ally, which called for a halt to the escalation by “all parties.”
In his part, the SDF commander Mazlum Abdi spoke with the American Al-Monitor website on 23 November about Erdogan’s threats of a new ground offensive.
Abdi told Al-Monitor that the most likely target of a potential Turkish ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled areas would be his native city of Kobani.
Abdi attributed Turkey’s latest attacks to Erdogan’s efforts to stoke nationalist sentiments ahead of elections next year. A prolonged economic downturn with runaway inflation and rising joblessness is threatening Erdogan’s near two decades in power. “What better distraction than war?” he said.
Abdi also pointed out that without a green light from Washington or Moscow, Turkey cannot launch a ground offensive against the Kurdish forces in its areas of influence.
Abdi, the commander of the main US-backed Kurdish-led force in Syria, said on 26 November that they “have halted operations against the Islamic State group due to Turkish attacks on northern Syria over the past week,” according to The Associated Press.
“The forces that work symbolically with the international coalition in the fight against Daesh are now targets for the Turkish state, and therefore (military) operations have stopped,” Abdi said, using an Arabic acronym of the Islamic State group. “Anti-Daesh operations have stopped.” Such a statement that analysts see as a veiled threat to the US.
In another statement to The AP, Abdi said that “his group has been preparing for another such attack since Turkey launched a ground offensive in the area in 2019, and “we believe that we have reached a level where we can foil any new attack. At least the Turks will not be able to occupy more of our areas, and there will be a great battle.”
An analytical report by Jusoor Studies Center revealed that there was “high military coordination” between Washington and Ankara, which enabled the arrival of Turkish warplanes to Deir Ezzor governorate, and less coordination between Russia and Turkey.
The report indicated that the US, despite the high level of coordination, expressed its fear of the impact of the operation on the war against ISIS, which might constitute an obstacle to expanding the level of coordination, which makes launching a ground attack at the present time unlikely.
In his turn, the Russian analyst Dmitry Bridzhe said that the US was certainly trying to work on a project for the Kurds in the region, but this project was “unsuccessful and not possible” due to international political changes and the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on international political positions.
“Timid” response, waiting for Russian-Turkish understanding
The Syrian regime contented itself with mourning a number of its soldiers located in areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo and al-Hasakah countryside, as a result of the Turkish attacks, without specifying their number, through the Ministry of Defense, amid Turkish threats and perhaps changes to the map of military control in Syria, international reactions and attempts to contain the escalation and restraint.
The Syrian official comment was delayed, but it came on 23 November through Ayman Sousan, Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister, on the sidelines of his participation in the “Astana” talks on Syria under the auspices of the guarantor countries (Turkey, Russia, and Iran), considering that “the pretexts of the Turkish occupation to justify its policies are deceiving no one anymore.”
Sousan added that ensuring security “does not come with aggression, attacks, and invasion, but with cooperation, and the responsibility for security in neighboring countries is a joint responsibility.”
Buthaina Shaaban, the media advisor to the head of the Syrian regime, stated that “the Turkish occupation takes flimsy pretexts for the survival of (terrorists) who work under its umbrella” in northwestern Syria.
Shaaban’s statement, which was reported by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA), did not mention the ground attack that Turkey intends to launch or the air targeting through Operation “Claw-Sword.”
Shaaban indicated that the Turkish regime does not “comply with its commitments with Russia and fabricates arguments to implement its ambitions in the Syrian and Iraqi lands.”
Russia’s special presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said in an interview with Sputnik on 24 November that “there is no need to revise the memorandum of understanding on Syria between Russia and Turkey, as the agreements are still in force, noting that Moscow is doing everything possible to fulfill its obligations under the document.”
“Russia is doing everything in its power to fulfill its obligations under these agreements,” which stipulate that the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units from Syrian territory “should not carry out any provocative actions against Turkey and that they should all be removed from the area 30 kilometers away,” the diplomat said.
Lavrentiev added that there are also obligations incumbent on Turkey, which involve the withdrawal of “illegal” armed groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) behind the international M4 highway to the north, but Turkey has not yet been able to fulfill these obligations.
The diplomat’s comment came in response to Erdogan’s statement that the other parties were unable to fulfill the requirements of the Sochi agreement in 2019.
Erdogan pointed out that the forces that provided guarantees that no threat would be issued against Turkey from the areas under their control in Syria “were unable to fulfill their promises,” referring to Russia.
Turkey designated the PKK on the terrorism list, and the Kurdish party is also designated on the US and EU terrorism lists.
Turkey considers the SDF an extension of the PKK, which the SDF denies, despite its acknowledgment that there are PKK fighters operating under its banner and they occupy leadership positions.
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