Moscow steers Ankara-Damascus rapprochement, but at slow pace
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
The path of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime, since its inception on December 28, 2022, through the meeting of the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime, faced various positions, whose contradiction and the regime’s adherence to a high ceiling of demands, thwarted any step comparable to the ministerial meeting of this level.
The meeting did not result in a road map that was hoped to lead to a presidential meeting that brings together the Turkish president with his Russian counterpart and the head of the regime before the Turkish elections scheduled on May 14.
On March 27, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that the four-way consultations (after Iran joined the track) will be held in Moscow, at the level of deputy foreign ministers of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, in the first week of April.
The Russian official’s speech was followed, only two days later, by what was reported by the pro-regime al-Watan newspaper about holding bilateral talks on the first day of the consultations, on April 3, before moving on to the official talks the next day.
This step, which came inconsistent with the general political atmosphere that hangs over the political track, suggests the difficulty of reaching a formula of understanding between Ankara and Damascus before the Turkish presidential elections.
In addition, there were many previous attempts to bring points of view closer, but they did not see the light, despite the statements and announcements made by high-ranking officials, as it was decided after the ministerial meeting in Moscow to move to the meeting of the foreign ministers of the same parties, but the meeting did not take place despite its date being set more than once during past months.
No change paves meeting way
A number of indications have emerged since the beginning of the year that do not indicate an agreement that would lead to a meeting between the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad. The most recent and clear and frank one is what al-Assad said during an interview he gave to the Russian state-run RT channel on March 16 during his fifth visit to Russia since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.
At that time, al-Assad launched an attack on Turkey and its political leadership, in conjunction with the failure of the meeting of the deputy foreign ministers, which was scheduled for the same day, before it was publicly undermined by al-Assad’s statements, which spoke of the ambitions of Turkish politicians that they wanted to achieve through the war in Syria.
However, Moscow linked the delay to a lack of readiness, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Al-Assad indicated that the Turkish proposal that arrived regarding the quartet meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers is that there should be no agenda for the meeting or any conditions from any party and that there should be no expectations.
Al-Assad continued, “We did not set conditions.. raising the issue of withdrawal is fixed and will not change. It is a national issue, not a political one.”
In response to a question about the possibility of holding a meeting with the Turkish president before the Turkish elections, al-Assad considered that each party operates with different priorities, and if the Turkish withdrawal from Syria takes place, the meeting will not be ruled out, but it will not take place before the conditions for the regime are met, which focus on the withdrawal clause.
The head of the regime criticized statements issued by the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, during which he denied that the presence of his country’s forces in northwest Syria was an occupation.
Al-Assad said, “If not an occupation, what is it? Hosting in Syria? What is this logic?… Unless he relies on Roman laws, when states determined their borders according to their military might. He probably lives in that era.”
Al-Assad attributed the issue of the security imbalance on the Syrian-Turkish border to “Erdogan’s policy,” considering that the issues of security and refugees, as a Turkish problem, are produced by the Justice and Development Party led by the Turkish president.
After the harsh tone, and the regime’s insistence on linking the Turkish withdrawal to the rapprochement path, the Turkish side did not issue, at least publicly, any indication that the withdrawal clause was bypassed, which al-Assad considered a “constant proposal” as a prelude to holding the meeting.
Time is short
The time factor is an indication of the difficulty of going far in the Damascus-Ankara rapprochement path, compared to more than three months that did not achieve tangible results, given the date of the meeting of deputy foreign ministers, on April 3 and 4, and the date of the elections on May 14.
Bilal al-Salaimah, researcher in International Relations, told Enab Baladi that the regime is currently in no hurry to take any tangible step in this context and is awaiting the Turkish elections, believing that any change in the Turkish political administration will be in its interest and facilitate the negotiation mechanism.
The regime also deals with Arab normalization and the state of rapprochement that some countries initiated with it following the earthquake as a factor of strength in negotiating with Ankara, al-Salaimah added.
At the same time, the researcher suggested that the meetings would continue on a technical level rather than on a diplomatic and political level, ruling out that the meeting of the foreign ministers of the same parties would take place before the elections, which might derail the presidential meeting from the category of expectations.
Regarding the Turkish approach towards activating normal relations between Turkey and Egypt against the background of the faltering track with the regime, al-Salaimah believes that the two tracks of normalization have no direct relationship with each other, more than a Turkish desire to follow a “more conciliatory” approach and move away from regional tensions.
On December 31, 2022, the Turkish Foreign Minister said that he might meet with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, in the second half of January 2023, but another statement by the Turkish minister, on the 12th of the same month, denied the existence of a specific date for the meeting, pointing to the possibility of it taking place early February.
Cavusoglu also indicated during a press conference on January 3 that Moscow had submitted a proposal to set a date for the meeting, but his country was not ready on the specified dates.
During the second week of the same month, talk escalated about the ministerial meeting between the two sides, but an African tour initiated by the Turkish minister between January 8-14 also revealed that the meeting could not be held on the first date.
On January 18, the Turkish Foreign Minister visited the United States. After the visit, the momentum of talk of rapprochement with Damascus declined, in light of the talk about the features of an American-Turkish deal, according to which Washington distanced Ankara from Damascus.
Up to the devastating earthquake that occurred on February 6 and changed the priorities of the stage for weeks, after the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, spoke on February 2 about the continuation of meetings in the foreseeable future between Turkey, Russia and the regime at the level of technical delegations.
All of these facts were accompanied by an Iranian entry into the line of talks that did not move forward, even through statements, as of the time of preparing this report.
On January 31, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that a new agreement had been reached, requiring Iran to join the process of “settling the situation” between Syria and Turkey.
Despite the Turkish talk of a “constructive atmosphere” after the tripartite ministerial meeting in Moscow, from which no group photo was taken, Ankara hinted again, in mid-January, of a ground military operation in Syria.
This coincided with statements that came out of Damascus by al-Assad and Mekdad and poured into one context, as al-Assad affirmed 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 al-Watan newspaper.
During a joint press conference of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Iranian, who visited Moscow on March 29, Hussein Amir Abdollahian said that the meeting will take place in order to bridge the views and positions between Ankara and Damascus and that his previous visit to Damascus was in this regard.
On April 4, Moscow hosted a quadrilateral meeting between delegations from Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime, headed by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ayman Susan was quoted by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) as saying that re-engagement with Turkey has objective circumstances and requirements that must be met with genuine will and serious dialogue to reach it.
He also demanded not to hamper the Syrian state’s efforts to re-establish its authority in its territories, including “terrorist-controlled areas,” to cease interference in Syrian internal affairs, and not to provide support and protection to “terrorist groups” in Syria, specifically in Idlib.
For its part, Moscow stated that participants in the meeting had discussed the issue of preparing a meeting between the same parties’ foreign ministers.
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