Ankara sets conditions; regime insists on complete withdrawal

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan meets with the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, in Astana - June 20, 2023 (State TV)

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan meets with the UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, in Astana - June 20, 2023 (State TV)


Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

A two-day international meeting on Syria was held in Kazakhstan’s Astana (20-21 June) in conjunction with the second technical meeting of the Quadripartite Process between the Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian deputy foreign ministries which took place on the sidelines of the meeting.

Despite the importance that the four parties attach to the path of Turkish rapprochement with the regime, the 20th round of the high-level meeting on Syria in Astana format was able to withdraw the spotlight from the Quadripartite meeting, which did not achieve any breakthroughs in terms of the statements it produced.

What was issued by the Syrian regime in the words of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ayman Sousan, was poured into the context of the statements made by the regime in the words of its various officials since the beginning of the course of negotiations or the so-called peace talks.

Sousan had said that any actual results of the Astana format must be based on the immediate withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory, considering these claims as “National Constants.”

He explained that the continuous Turkish statements, according to which Ankara confirms its commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, are inconsistent with its continued “occupation” of Syrian territories and violate international law and the most basic elements of relations between countries, as he put it.

The statements of the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister were followed at the end of the track by a talk about an agreement to continue meetings at the level of deputy foreign ministers, with the possibility of holding a meeting at the ministerial level if the need arises.

However, no statements were issued suggesting a tangible convergence of views between the two parties that stand on either side of a political rivalry that has been going on since 2011 when the regime chose to suppress peaceful protests calling for political change, and Ankara preferred to stand by the opposition, and opened the doors to receive more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

On June 26, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, which is close to the government, published what it said were four Turkish conditions for normalizing relations with Damascus, which are reaching a constitutional amendment, fair elections in Syria, an honorable and safe return of Syrian refugees, and cooperation in the issue of “fighting terrorism,” specifically with regard to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Ankara believes that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control northeastern Syria, constitute its branch in Syria).

According to the newspaper, the Syrian side expressed the regime’s dissatisfaction with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) because of what it considered “the theft of Syrian oil and grain.”

Yeni Safak also pointed out that the establishment of a quadruple military coordination center is on the agenda so that Syria can return to normal as soon as possible.

The task of the quadruple center is to appoint a representative from each country to manage the mechanism to be established. This mechanism is scheduled to become more clear during the upcoming meetings.

In the same context, it was pointed out that Turkey wants progress in the political process in Syria in the right way by drafting a new constitution, holding general elections with the participation of all Syrians in the world, and establishing a legitimate government according to these elections, in addition to reassuring the returnees to their country.

Among the proposed formulas for the return of refugees is to keep them first in safe areas, and then they can return to the cities in which they used to live.

It is an issue that, according to Ankara’s view, requires a written commitment on the part of the regime, which includes this formula for the return of refugees.

Unsurprising proposition

The Turkish demands or conditions for activating the rapprochement process, which have ranged within the framework of meetings and their postponement since December 2022, intersect with previous Turkish statements.

On May 3, the former Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, linked the Turkish withdrawal from Syria to the stability of the areas where Turkish forces are currently present so that they are not a corridor for terrorism, given that “terrorist organizations” will fill the gap, according to statements he made during an interview with Turkish NTV channel.

On April 28, Cavusoglu said that his country will not withdraw its military from Syria until the political solution previously demanded by the United Nations is achieved, referring to Resolution 2254 (2015), that is “linked to the political process, addressing terrorism, implementing confidence-building measures, safe and voluntary refugee returns, and releasing arbitrarily detained persons.”

During an interview with the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper at the time, he considered that the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria would not be feasible, especially with the large spread of “terrorists” throughout Syria.

The talk about Turkish conditions comes in the first quadripartite meeting after the Turkish elections, on May 28, according to which the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was re-elected as president for the next five years, and the issue of rapprochement came out of the category of stakes and political tensions.

The outcome of the elections contradicted the aspirations of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, who considered last March that “the only earthquake that changes Turkish policies and pushes for rapprochement now is the presidential elections in Turkey.”

Analyst and expert in Turkish affairs Mahmoud Alloush told Enab Baladi that these Turkish demands from the Syrian regime do not constitute conditions as much as they are a strategy developed by Turkey after the turning point in the relationship with the Syrian regime.

It is centered on three basic goals or principles, which are cooperation in the fight against terrorism, the return of Syrian refugees, and advancing the political process, and it may be the main determinant of Turkish policy in Syria for the coming period.

Alloush believes that there is a growing conviction in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran as well that the issue of Turkish withdrawal cannot be achieved unless there is a comprehensive settlement of Turkish relations with the Syrian regime based on tracks, including those related to the security and military aspects, and others related to the political aspect.

The Syrian regime’s talk about the Turkish withdrawal from Syria and setting a timetable for this purpose is nothing more than an attempt to strengthen its position at the negotiating table, which makes the current Turkish strategy or demands a prelude to the Turkish withdrawal from Syria, according to Alloush.

There appears to be a growing acknowledgment within the Quadripartite that addressing the issue of the Turkish military presence in Syria may be a result of negotiations rather than a precondition for them.

Mahmoud Alloush – Analyst and expert in Turkish affairs

Regarding the road map that was agreed upon by a Russian proposal on May 10 during the quadripartite meeting and which was put forward for discussion in the meeting of the deputy foreign ministers, Alloush believes that the path is complicated by virtue of the complex files that govern this path.

However, there is a Russian desire to advance this path, accompanied by a Turkish willingness to move forward with it, with the regime’s willingness to continue negotiations, the analyst adds.

The next step will be to build multi-dimensional understandings between Ankara and Damascus, paving the way for a new phase of relations, despite there are obstacles that could face these negotiations, which is explained by the escalation on the ground, whether by the regime and Russia against the “fourth de-escalation” zone in Idlib or the Turkish escalation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria, according to Alloush.

Hard work

The senior aide to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Asghar Khaji, told the Russian agency Sputnik on June 21 that the delegations of Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Syria agreed to continue working on a roadmap to normalize relations between Ankara and Damascus.

He added, “We did not expect that we would be able to achieve complete progress in only one meeting, but it is important that work begins. We agreed to continue negotiations.”

The Iranian official stated that the four parties want to hold another meeting at the level of deputy foreign ministers and a ministerial meeting “if necessary.”

He considered that the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus implies a discussion of the issue of refugees, border security, and Turkey’s presence in Syria.

According to Asghar Khaji, the normalization of relations between Turkey and the regime is not a simple process, and it has multiple dimensions at the same time.

The statements are consistent with what was mentioned by the Russian ambassador to Damascus, Alexander Yefimov, on June 12, when he indicated the difficulty of restoring what was destroyed for 12 years in a few weeks or months.

In a statement to the pro-regime al-Watan newspaper, Yefimov said, “A lot of hard work awaits us in this direction, and it must be frankly recognized that the positions of the two parties are still far from each other.”



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