Ankara-Damascus rapprochement: Impact of elections, Arab normalization
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
The issue of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime continued to be present in the political statements between the two sides in the recent crowds of regional political activities.
The file, which is on a bumpy path of contentious issues between Ankara and Damascus, has not gone far from conflicting statements, and the Syrian regime has adhered to the same conditions since the start of the first official public meetings, sponsored by Russia, in late 2022.
What has changed in the file at the present time is the time context that constitutes the background for these continuous statements, which took a sharper tone by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, during his participation in the Jeddah summit on May 19.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, quoted sources it described as “informed” on May 25 that it is too early to talk about preparing a Syrian committee to follow up a roadmap for developing relations with Ankara based on the outcomes of the quadruple ministerial meeting in Moscow on the 10th of the same month.
These statements came in response to the Turkish Foreign Minister’s talk about the possibility of holding a meeting that brings together the committee to prepare the roadmap for normalization within the next few days, which was considered by al-Watan newspaper as electoral statements at the time.
During his participation in the Jeddah Summit, al-Assad escalated his rhetoric against Turkey, and this was clearly evident when he attacked Ankara without naming it while talking about the region’s problems.
Al-Assad said that the headlines are too many for words, and summits are not enough, pointing to the Israeli occupation’s crimes against the Palestinians and “the danger of the expansionist Ottoman thought infused with a deviant Brotherhood movement flavor.”
For his part, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, reaffirmed these statements on May 22, stressing at the same time the condition for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria, before reaching a meeting that brings together the newly re-elected Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with al-Assad.
Mekdad also made it clear that the “Syrian state” will not normalize with its “enemies” and will not normalize with a country that “occupies its lands.”
He pointed out that the regime delegation, during the quadripartite meeting in Moscow on May 10, crossed out all references to normalization on the grounds that it could only be a result of the Turkish withdrawal from Syria, he said.
On May 19, the day of the Arab summit, which included an affirmation of the rejection of the “illegal” military presence in Syria, Erdogan confirmed in an interview with CNN that there was no intention to withdraw from northern Syria, considering that the danger still persists on the borders and that there is an existing “terrorist threat” that calls for a military presence.
A voice louder than Damascus
The demands of the Syrian regime and its continuous link of its political relationship with Ankara with the Turkish withdrawal did not prevent the continuation of the meetings within the path of rapprochement, the development of these meetings and the expansion of their circle as well, and the repeated description of their atmosphere as “positive.”
The quartet meeting of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the regime on May 10 was preceded by a condition for Turkish withdrawal as well, but what resulted publicly was an agreement to prepare a roadmap for normalization in coordination with the defense ministries of the same parties, based on the proposal of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his opening speech to the ministerial meeting hosted by Moscow, like all previous meetings on this track.
The ministers also referred to a “positive and constructive atmosphere,” with the agreement to continue high-level contacts and technical talks in the quadripartite format during the coming period.
Although there was a clear activation of the rapprochement wheel through the acceleration of the meetings, when the meeting of foreign ministers took place about two weeks after the meeting of the defense ministers, on April 25, around a round table, and the first group photo was presented in the history of the course, after the regime’s previous refusal to take pictures with the Turkish side, the regime adhered to the same conditions and escalated its rhetoric against Turkey again, affected by the state of the “Arab opening” to Damascus, according to what analysts told Enab Baladi.
Bilal Salaymeh, a Ph.D. researcher in international relations, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s return to the Arab League, the reception that al-Assad enjoyed, and the talk about the possibility of providing aid to the regime, all of these steps strengthen al-Assad’s negotiating position with Turkey, especially that he is reluctant to normalize relations with Ankara and is moving in this path under direct Russian pressure or push.
“Normalization with the Arab world raised al-Assad’s voice in front of Ankara, and the Turkish side is more interested in the process of normalization than the Syrian regime or sending messages about its desire for normalization, especially in light of the Turkish elections and the sensitivity of the refugee issue,” Salaymeh added.
The researcher also drew attention to Turkey’s negotiating position with the regime after the elections and whether Ankara will pursue this path with the same activity, or adopt a colder language, especially in light of the latter’s lack of interaction.
Regarding the Syrian regime’s adherence to the condition of the Turkish withdrawal, Salaymeh believes that Damascus’ position is firm on this issue, just as the Turkish refusal is based on fears of the influx of refugees and the expansion of organizations it considers terrorist.
I do not believe that rapprochement will be strategic in the future, but they are interim negotiating attempts and messages. The regime is interested in responding to Russian pressure and improving its negotiating position with the Arabs in time Ankara is responding to continuous Russian demands in addition to internal messages.
Bilal Salaymeh, researcher in international relations
At the same time, the researcher in international relations, Mahmoud Alloush, interpreted the regime’s recent statements as an attempt to confirm that its position will not change after the Turkish elections because it is aware that President Erdogan will win the elections and before that, the regime had hopes that the opposition would win and reach a political change that would lead to a shift in the Turkish position towards Syria.
Alloush considered that the regime’s adherence to the Turkish withdrawal from Syria is a kind of raising the ceiling of negotiations to reach the best results.
Everyone knows that reaching a settlement regarding the Turkish military presence in Syria cannot be achieved without a comprehensive settlement between Ankara and Damascus, and this is what Russia is working on, according to the researcher.
There may be progress in the negotiations between Ankara and Damascus after the Turkish elections, but there should not be excessive betting on immediate progress.
Mahmoud Alloush, researcher in international relations
The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, had previously questioned the level of influence that the political meeting between al-Assad and Erdogan could achieve and said, “Meeting al-Assad before or after the elections will not be an advantage for us, perhaps it will be an obstacle.”
Alloush also believes that al-Assad was forced into negotiations under Russian pressure, and after his visit to Moscow, in mid-March, he retracted his refusal to meet with Turkey, which led to a meeting with deputy foreign ministers.
Alloush says, “There are Russian calculations in the relationship with Turkey that go beyond the Syrian file, and Moscow is keen to reform the relations of its two allies, and it may play an important future role in advancing negotiation tracks between the two sides.”
In an interview with the Russia Today (RT) channel, and on his fifth visit to Moscow since the start of the Syrian revolution, al-Assad linked any development in relations with Ankara to the Turkish elections, considering that “the only earthquake that changes Turkish policies and pushes towards rapprochement now is the presidential elections in Turkey.”
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