Al-Assad’s visit to Moscow: A drive for normalization with Ankara; concessions to get aid
Enab Baladi – Ahmed Deeb
Reports about Bashar al-Assad’s upcoming visit to Moscow revitalized several files, most notably the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, which was halted by the earthquake that struck Turkey on February 6.
Following the announcement of al-Assad’s visit to Moscow, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu revealed that a four-way meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers will be held in Moscow next week, with the participation of the Syrian regime, Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
The failure of the Syrian regime and the Kremlin to comment on the reasons for al-Assad’s visit to Russia opened the door to questions about the importance of the visit and the issues that will be discussed during al-Assad’s presence in Moscow.
The upcoming visit to Moscow is the fifth of its kind after the outbreak of the protests in Syria, and it is the first visit that was announced before it happened.
Three files, rapprochement is the most important
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that al-Assad plans to visit Russia, indicating that the date of the visit will be announced at a specific time, for security reasons, according to what was reported by the Russian Novosti Agency on March 6.
Peskov’s remarks came hours after a comment, reported by the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, from a source close to the Russian president’s administration, stating that al-Assad will arrive on an official visit to Moscow in mid-March and may be received by Putin.
The Kremlin did not comment on the reasons for al-Assad’s visit to Moscow, while the newspaper quoted Russian experts as saying that humanitarian issues and international relations will be on the agenda of this visit.
Senior Researcher for the Center of the Middle East Studies, Nikolai Surkov, said that the main issues that will be on the agenda of the negotiations between Damascus and Moscow are humanitarian aid after the earthquake, fuel supplies, attracting investments to Syria, and bilateral trade issues, in addition to the Syrian-Turkish relations, which are being negotiated with Russian mediation.
For his part, Kirill Semenov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, believes that the regime will try to obtain aid from Russia to solve the fuel crisis after it was subjected to Iranian pressure related to raising the price of oil products and not selling them on credit.
In addition to a request for aid to deal with the damage caused by the earthquake, the meeting may include talking about the normalization of relations between Damascus and Ankara, according to Semenov.
The Syrian political analyst specialized in Russian affairs, Mahmoud al-Hamza, told Enab Baladi that al-Assad’s visit is part of the efforts made by Russia for the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, explaining that the Syrian regime is not enthusiastic about rapprochement with Erdoğan.
Nader al-Khalil, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, also considered, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that several files will be on the discussion table, the most prominent of which will be the main file for Russia related to the path of normalization between Turkey and the regime in particular before the upcoming Turkish elections.
Putin pushes for rapprochement
Al-Assad’s visit to Russia is the first of its kind after reports of a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement mediated by Russia.
The rapprochement began with the meeting of the Turkish, Russian, and Syrian defense ministers in the capital, Moscow, on December 28, 2022.
Regarding the upcoming meeting between al-Assad and Erdoğan, Çağrı Erhan, a member of the Security Council and Foreign Policy in the Turkish presidency, said on March 6 that it is unlikely for the meeting to take place before the presidential elections in Turkey, scheduled for May 14.
Erhan added that Erdoğan does not oppose such a meeting in principle, but “the devastating earthquake changed everything,” he said.
Al-Hamza believes that Russia summoned al-Assad and imposed on him some positions that will be presented in the meeting of the deputy foreign ministers, considering that the meeting of the deputy foreign ministers in Russia next week will not move forward without the approvals of the political leaders.
Al-Hamza said that the Russian president is the one who summoned al-Assad and wants to take pledges from him on issues and impose on him certain solutions.
“It is possible that Putin is preparing for a summit meeting between Erdoğan, Bashar al-Assad, and the Iranian president,” the political analyst added, pointing out that the Syrian regime does not want Erdoğan to win the upcoming presidential elections because the Turkish opposition is closer to it than Erdoğan.
Researcher Nader Khalil considers that Russia is more inclined and receptive to the Turkish president’s victory in the upcoming elections.
“Russia wants to achieve progress in the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement path, “even if it is a formality,” so that Erdoğan can exploit the rapprochement in the Turkish elections,” he said, adding that al-Assad is trying to prevent any meeting or progress in the rapprochement path with Turkey so that the rapprochement will not be a winning card which Erdoğan may benefit from in the Turkish elections.
In conjunction with al-Assad’s visit to Syria, a quartet meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers will be held in Moscow next week, with the participation of the Syrian regime, Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
During a press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian said, “Bilateral talks and dialogues in the region are the only solution to crises, and we welcome the upcoming quadripartite meetings in Moscow with the aim of reaching increased cooperation and a way out of these crises.”
According to what was reported by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA), during his meeting with Abdollahian, on March 9, al-Assad welcomed Iran’s joining the meetings dedicated to normalizing relations between Damascus and Ankara, stressing the need for “good preparation for the meetings based on a specific and clear agenda, headlines, and outputs.”
In a press conference by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and his Iranian counterpart, Abdollahian, during the latter’s visit, on March 8, to Turkey, Çavuşoğlu said, in response to a press question about the date of the quadripartite meeting, “The Russian party offered to hold a meeting on the technical level of preparation for the possible meeting of foreign ministers.”
Çavuşoğlu added that next week he will send his deputy to attend the meeting, pointing to an Iranian presence as well and stressing the possibility of holding a meeting at the level of foreign ministers in the next stage when “everyone sees fit.”
No aid without concessions
The areas controlled by the regime are witnessing a fuel crisis in the recent period, in addition to the continuous rise in prices, and the Ministry of Internal Trade constantly announces the rise in fuel prices.
In mid-January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had doubled the price paid by the Syrian regime for crude oil.
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 a barrel, prompting Tehran to impose advance fees in return for supplying the regime with oil.
Researcher Nader Khalil believes that obtaining financial support, mainly fuel, is one of the reasons for al-Assad’s visit to Moscow.
Russia refrained from providing oil aid earlier, using Syria’s need for crude oil as a pressure card on the regime to push for Turkish rapprochement.
The researcher expected that al-Assad would make concessions in return for the support of Russia, which was betting on a meeting between al-Assad and Erdoğan before the Turkish elections.
“In short, al-Assad is going to Moscow to bargain over the concessions he will make through the path of normalization with Turkey,” according to what Khalil said, adding that in exchange for money and fuel from Russia, al-Assad will make concessions.
The United States still opposes rapprochement with the regime and vows to impose sanctions on countries that have resumed relations with Damascus.
An official at the US State Department stated, in an email correspondence with Enab Baladi about the decision, that without accountability, there can be no permanent solution to the “conflict.”
The official stressed that Washington supports the important role of the investigation committee and the international, impartial, and independent mechanism to document violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and to assist in investigations and criminal trials of the most serious international crimes.
The official concluded that in the absence of continuous progress towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict, we will not normalize relations with the regime, nor will we support the normalization of relations with other countries.
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