On way to Damascus, is Ankara trying to “please” Washington, Tehran
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
Without offering any indication of progress or regression in the course of the file, several political meetings that took place recently put the file of the Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime at the heart of the talks held.
The most recent of which was conducted by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, during his visit to the United States, on 18 January, during which he met his counterpart, Anthony Blinken.
Despite Washington’s opposition and failure to encourage any normalization of relations with the regime by any country, according to successive statements by its officials, the joint statement issued by the US State Department following the meeting between Cavusoglu and Blinken did not address the issue of “Ankara-Damascus rapprochement.”
The statement stated that the two ministers discussed all aspects of the “Syrian crisis” and stressed their countries’ commitment to a political mechanism in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution “2254.”
The statement talked about the fight against the Islamic State group and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), welcoming the extension of the aid delivery mechanism to northern Syria and then moving on to other international topics and issues.
What gave the visit an additional dimension were the visits that preceded it, on the one hand and unofficial talks about Washington’s intention to offer “enticements” to Ankara that would discourage it from taking a step towards the Syrian regime.
The visit, which was prepared in advance, and before Cavusoglu’s African tour (between 8 and 14 January), was preceded by the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, to Turkey and his meeting with his Turkish counterpart and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Biden administration is preparing to seek congressional approval for a 20 billion US dollars sale of new F-16 jet fighters to Turkey along with a separate sale of next-generation F-35 warplanes to Greece, in what would be among the largest foreign weapons sales in recent years, US officials told The Wall Street Journal on 13 January, in a move reinforce the hypothesis of the US “temptations” for Ankara.
The development in the US position regarding arming Turkey with these fighter jets came after a long procrastination that prompted Ankara to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system, which naturally impeded the deal as well.
In a briefing to the US State Department on 19 January, the deputy spokesperson for the ministry, Vedant Patel, reiterated his country’s position in refusing to return Syrian refugees, given that the conditions in Syria are not suitable.
This statement comes at a time when Ankara is seeking to discuss with the Syrian regime several files, the most prominent of which is the “voluntary return” of refugees.
Dr. Khaldoun al-Aswad, a member of the Americans for a Free Syria group, explained that the Turkish Foreign Minister’s meeting with both his American and Iranian counterparts falls within the framework of the Turkish search for international understandings that will achieve what Ankara wants in Syria, given that the Syrian regime is unable to meet Turkish “ambitions” regarding the issues currently being raised, most notably the situation in northeastern Syria and the refugee file.
Al-Aswad told Enab Baladi that the regime does not have anything to offer Turkey, as there is no possibility of repatriating the refugees given the number of conditions that control the reality of the areas under its control, and it has no ability to use a military option against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in isolation from the support of the countries concerned with the Syrian file if there is a desire to knock on that door.
Regarding the absence of the Turkish rapprochement file with the Syrian regime from the discussions of Mevlut Cavusoglu and Blinken, al-Aswad ruled out not discussing an issue of this importance between the two ministers, indicating at the same time that bypassing an issue or not talking about it and moving to other issues to discuss on the visit schedule means that there are outstanding issues set aside to discuss other topics.
Al-Aswad told Enab Baladi that the American position on the issue of rapprochement or normalization cannot be ignored and that Ankara will take Washington’s position into account in its way to negotiate with the Russians and Iranians about its relations with the regime.
Iran’s FM in Ankara
The Iranian Foreign Minister expressed his gratitude for the change in the course of relations between Turkey and the regime during a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara.
“We believe in the importance of any positive step within the framework of relations between the two countries, and we believe in the importance of these relations for the region,” Abdollahian said during the conference, which was preceded by a meeting with President Erdogan and then with his Turkish counterpart.
Abdollahian’s visit was accompanied by statements made by his senior advisor for special political affairs, Ali Asghar Khaji, during an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), during which he stressed that the Syrian issue cannot be resolved easily without the presence of Iran.
Iran’s FM visit to Ankara was preceded by his visit to Damascus on 14 January, where he met the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad.
On the same day, al-Assad commented on the issue of rapprochement with Turkey, stressing that the Syrian state will not move forward in its dialogue with the Turkish side unless the goal is to end the occupation and stop supporting “terrorist organizations,” according to what was reported by al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, on the first page of its printed issue published on 15 January.
Following these statements, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, made similar statements that fall into the same context, so that the response came from the Turkish presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, that the Turkish military operation in Syria is still an option on the table in view of the level of threat facing Ankara.
Bilal al-Salaimeh, a researcher at the Higher Institute of International Studies in Geneva, explained that the regime’s statements in this context cannot be read in isolation from Iranian pressure, pointing to the delay in the official Iranian welcome to the tripartite talks in Moscow.
In addition, Iran’s relations with the regime have suffered a kind of apathy recently, in conjunction with the delay in the arrival of oil shipments and talk about Iran raising the prices of oil sold to Syria.
Iran restricts oil supply to Syria
Tehran doubles the price Damascus pays for crude, touching off a Syrian fuel shortage as its own economy sputters, The Wall Street Journal reported on 15 January.
“Iran’s ambitions to position itself as a leading power broker in the Middle East have been dealt a fresh blow—this time by its own struggling economy and how it is crimping Tehran’s ability to supply cheap oil to allies such as Syria,” said the WSJ.
According to the newspaper, the credit line that previously allowed Syria to pay later was quickly exhausted after Iran raised the price from an average of 30 US dollars a barrel, prompting Tehran to impose advance fees in return for supplying the regime with oil.
The normalization or rapprochement of the regime with any party will reduce its dependence on Tehran, which is something that Iran does not welcome, despite its inability to provide support to the regime and fulfill its needs, which represents a dilemma for Iranian policy towards Syria.
Bilal al-Salaimeh, an international studies researcher
Al-Salaimeh said that Tehran is keen to see the moves related to rapprochement without contradicting its support for the regime’s flotation, but at the same time, it does not want this rapprochement to be a gateway to Turkish expansion in the Syrian file.
Meanwhile, the researcher specialized in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, told Enab Baladi that the conditions set by the regime fall within the framework of rejecting the Turkish initiative but through diplomatic means.
In addition, raising the ceiling of negotiations in the rapprochement path is due to the Iranian decision and not to the regime, as the Iranian disengagement from the regime means its collapse.
The researcher ruled out the possibility of a Turkish withdrawal from the Syrian lands and from northwestern Syria in particular for local, regional and international reasons, in addition to Turkey’s position as an active country in the file as a whole.
The American position is the master of the situation, which is evident in the failure to reach a solution, the rejection of the proposals presented, the freezing of military operations, and the preservation of the international influence maps in Syria as they are, according to al-Nuaimi.
The researcher believes that Abdollahian’s visits to both Turkey and Syria are related to the political tours in which Iran invests to play the role of mediator to resolve crises. However, the official statements made by the minister fell within a general vague vision and did not go into depth.
On the path of rapprochement, which was officially launched at the meeting of the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime in Moscow, on 28 December 2022, many speculations emerged about the time and place of the meeting of the foreign ministers of the same parties, which is still not precisely defined, reflecting features of differences in visions that the two parties do not hide, along with the lack of American blessing.
Ankara confirmed, on 3 January, that it will not normalize its relations with the regime against the Syrian opposition’s will, and the local Syrian media talk about agreements in the tripartite meeting in Moscow at the end of 2022 was refuted by a Middle East Eye report, which denied through an informed Turkish source, without naming him, reaching any decisions in Moscow.
The first high-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian officials in Moscow last week was cordial, but no deals have been made, multiple sources told MEE.
“Reports that the Turkish delegation agreed to pull out its forces from northern Syria are wide of the mark, sources say, but progress could be made in some areas,” the UK-based website added.
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