Ankara-Damascus rapprochement; Variables and “unfriendly” messages

The quartet meeting in Moscow on Syria - May 10, 2023 (X/Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu)

The quartet meeting in Moscow on Syria - May 10, 2023 (X/Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu)


Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

The path of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime, since its official launch in December 2022, has collided with many obstacles embodied in pending files between the two parties accumulated by years of political rivalry for more than 12 years.

Ankara chose to side with the Syrian revolution demanding political change in Syria in 2011, and it welcomed more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees on its territory.

The Turkish military presence in northwestern Syria, the regime’s obstruction of the political process in accordance with the requirements of UN Resolution 2254 (2015) that stresses protection of Syrian civilians and a nationwide ceasefire that is linked to the political process, in addition to many other details made the rapprochement attempts that Moscow sponsored and blessed, and which it has hosted so far, do not go beyond non-periodic meetings that discuss red lines on both sides before they go back to discussing them again in the next meeting, without reaching a tangible or an announced result.

On July 28, the Russian RIA Novosti agency quoted an unnamed source in the Russian diplomatic department as saying that a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Quartet (Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime) is currently under discussion, but their agenda must coincide.

The Russian source considered that the process (referring to rapprochement) is continuing and that the issue of the meeting is under discussion, but to reach results, it is necessary to agree on the agendas of the ministers.

Same cliché

The Russian statement comes more than a month after the latest meetings of the Quartet at the level of deputy foreign ministers, which took place on June 20 and 21, in conjunction with the latest meetings of the international meeting on Syria in the format of the Astana talks.

At that time, the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Ayman Sousan, made it clear that any actual results of the Astana track must be based on the immediate withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory.

He also considered the Turkish statements about Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity inconsistent with its continued “occupation” of Syrian lands and in violation of international law and the most basic elements of relations between countries, as he put it.

After the end of the political meeting, the Russian President’s Special Envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said that an agreement had taken place between Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran on the roadmap presented by Moscow to normalize relations between Ankara and Damascus.

He added that all parties agreed on a roadmap to “advance the normalization of relations” and announced their views and proposals, and now they must be organized and coordinated, considering that the most important thing is for (the normalization process) to move forward, as it is a progressive process, that should not be postponed, and everyone agrees on this, according to him.

‘Unfriendly’ messages

Since that meeting, the two parties to the process have provided indications that suggest a greater dimension and clinging to the positions and statements that preceded the rotation of the wheels of the meetings.

During press statements he made from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul on July 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, demanded that Turkey leave the areas in which it is stationed in northern Syria, but this cannot happen, pointing out that his country is fighting “terrorism” there.

Also, ten days later, on July 27, Erdogan touched on the crimes of the Syrian regime during a speech he delivered on the occasion of the graduation of a batch of cadets from the Professional Police School at the Police Academy in Ankara, and he said at the time, “I heard a father yesterday evening on TV saying kill us, we turned to you to flee al-Assad’s crimes, you are our brothers, if you do not accept us, kill us.”

When the head of the Syrian regime met the special envoy of the Russian president, Lavrentiev, on July 25, the regime’s presidency stated that the two sides discussed several files, including “Turkish intransigence” regarding the issue of withdrawal from Syrian territory.

At the same time, the regime continues to hold Ankara responsible for the suffocating water crisis in al-Hasakah governorate, northeastern Syria, which is under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Timing indicator

In view of the state of activity of the negotiating meetings between the parties of the Quartet formula during the recent period, the state of advancing the track that took place before the Turkish presidential elections appears clear.

A meeting of the four deputy foreign ministers took place on April 4, then a meeting of the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of the same parties on the 25th of the same month, leading to a meeting of the foreign ministers on May 10, for the first time since the start of the track.

After this meeting, Ankara was preoccupied with its presidential elections, which took place in two rounds, from which Erdogan emerged victorious again, contrary to al-Assad’s hopes for a political change in Turkey that might advance the path of rapprochement, according to his statements to the Russian RT channel in mid-March.

This state of acceleration in the meetings was followed by a return to the usual irregular rhythm so that the most recent meeting took place on June 20, about 40 days after the meeting that preceded it, and about a month and a half passed since the meeting, without specifying a date for a new meeting yet.

On the other hand, three meetings took place in less than this period, prior to the elections, which strengthened Ankara’s negotiating position, removing the file’s weight on domestic politics after it was snatched from the hands of the Turkish opposition.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Turkey during August, according to Erdogan’s statements on August 4, without excluding the discussion of the two partner parties in the Astana talks about the Syrian file, during the visit that comes after a precedent conducted by his Ukrainian opponent, Volodymyr Zelensky, in July 8,

Moscow closely watched the Ukrainian visit to Turkey, which included Turkish support for Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the Ukrainian president’s recovery of a group of his officers residing in Turkey under a previous prisoner exchange agreement with Moscow.

Ankara clinging to its position?

Mahmoud Alloush, a researcher and an expert in Turkish affairs, told Enab Baladi that the path of Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime faces great complications, most notably the issue of the Turkish military presence in Syria. However, it is clear that the concerned parties are willing to move forward with it.

Alloush pointed to a partial change in the Turkish position after the May elections, which made Ankara less willing to make concessions regarding the substance or the red lines of its policy in Syria.

The Istanbul-based analyst sees the possibility of slight progress in the path of rapprochement between Turkey and the regime, indicating at the same time that there is no Turkish conviction that the Syrian regime is capable of extending its control in at least the areas of northeastern Syria (run by Kurdish bodies that Ankara considers a threat to its national security).

The regime is also unable to deal with the refugee file, which is an internally pressing file for Turkey, according to him.

“Turkey will continue the dialogue, and its path is not only linked to contentious issues, but rather is linked to Turkish-Russian relations in general, and this relationship is influential in the dialogue, given that Moscow is the sponsor,” Alloush added.

Turkey may not be determined to achieve results in the dialogue with the Syrian regime as long as the dialogue has goals according to Turkish policy, according to the expert.

It also seems that the Turkish president is insisting on continuing the dialogue with the regime, at least during this period when Turkey is awaiting its municipal elections, and has stopped or obstructed the process now, which may constitute a strong card for the opposition that it can invest in the elections, Alloush said.

Turkey is realistic in its policy, and this dialogue cannot reach results that fundamentally address Turkish priorities and concerns in terms of security or the return of Syrian refugees.

Mahmoud Alloush, Expert in Turkish affairs

On June 26, the pro-Turkish government Yeni Safak newspaper reported four Turkish conditions for normalizing relations with Damascus.

The first is a constitutional amendment, fair elections in Syria, an honorable and safe return of Syrian refugees, and cooperation in the issue of “combating Terrorism,” and the last is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as Ankara believes that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a PKK branch in northeastern Syria.

The Turkish demands intersect to a large extent with the Arab proposals within the “Jordanian Initiative,” with differences in wording and an agreement not to provide a tangible response from the regime that pushes the political process forward, in line with Security Council Resolution 2254, which constitutes a suspended roadmap for a solution in Syria.




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