A year on Ankara-Damascus rapprochement: Meetings, conditions and no breakthroughs
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
A year has passed since the Russian mediation efforts and Iranian intrusion into the Syrian-Turkish negotiations line, which were launched without any preliminaries declaring the course of the Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime, opening the door to successive meetings aimed at achieving a meeting between the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.
A meeting of the defense ministers and intelligence leaders of Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime in Moscow on December 28, 2022, which launched the process, was followed by a series of meetings at ministerial levels (defense ministers and foreign ministers)
But the latest in this path, whose activities declined after the Turkish elections last May, was a statement by the Turkish Defense Minister, Yaşar Güler, in which he pledged to end his country’s military presence in Syria as soon as security was restored in the “neighboring country,” indicating that the Turkish forces would return home as soon as the regime and the opposition agree on a new constitution and hold elections to ensure stability.
The Turkish minister said, according to what was reported by the Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper on December 11, “The Turkish forces will leave Syria as soon as the regime agrees with the opposition on a new constitution and holds elections, two conditions that may pave the way for ending the conflict in the country, which has exceeded a decade in history.”
Güler added that the Syrian regime often refers to the presence of Turkish soldiers in northern Syria as an obstacle to complete normalization, but the Turkish army is stationed in the region against security threats, specifically groups classified on Ankara’s “terrorist lists,” such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The Turkish statement, which did not provide anything new in the context of Ankara’s demands, was preceded by a meeting between al-Assad and Erdogan under the dome of one hall in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on November 11, when the two political rivals met at the Arab-Islamic summit about developments in the situation in Gaza.
Television cameras recorded the Turkish President standing close to al-Assad before taking the group photo of the participants in the summit, when Erdogan exchanged a short conversation with the Egyptian President before returning to his place to take the photo in the middle of the two presidents, the Iranian and the Palestinian, without recording a greeting or speech with al-Assad.
At the time al-Assad delivered his speech, Erdogan was absent from the hall, while the Turkish Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, was busy with his mobile phone without using translation headphones, as an expression of his indifference.
The Turkish position in this context is not considered surprising, as the process that began at a rapid pace immediately after its launch, and with features of intentional urgency, entered a state of lethargy after the Turkish elections, which can be measured by the number of meetings before and after the elections that crowned Erdogan as Turkish president for the next five years, dashing al-Assad’s hopes of a Turkish political change that could change the method and mechanism for negotiating the normalization of relations.
Although the meetings after the elections were limited to one meeting, Russian attempts to invigorate this path continued, as the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, explained on September 20 (about three months after the most recent rapprochement path meetings) that Moscow is working on improving the road map regarding relations between Ankara and Damascus, indicating that Moscow calls for holding a four-way meeting on the normalization of Turkish relations with the regime as soon as possible.
Bogdanov said, “A date has not been set yet, but we believe, and we have said this to our friends in Damascus, Ankara, and Tehran, that we have no time to waste, and we must move as quickly as possible, and move forward with that,” according to what was reported by the Russian TASS agency.
Two days before the Russian statement, the Turkish Defense Minister summarized his country’s conditions for military withdrawal from Syria by holding elections, reaching a new constitution, and forming a government that includes all segments of the people.
These conditions do not differ from what was published by the Turkish Yeni Şafak newspaper on June 26 and said that there are four Turkish conditions for normalizing relations with Damascus, represented by reaching a constitutional amendment, fair elections in Syria, an honorable and safe return of Syrian refugees, and cooperation in the issue of combating terrorism, specifically with regard to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Ankara believes that the Syrian Democratic Forces constitute its ideological and military extension in northeastern Syria).
All the Turkish conditions, regardless of their wording, appeared after the Turkish elections, after which an orphan political meeting of the “Normalization Quartet” (Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime) took place in conjunction with the 20th round of the Astana talks on the 20th and 21st of last June.
On July 28, Moscow claimed that the absence of meetings within the rapprochement process was due to the incompatibility of the agendas of the foreign ministers of the four parties, explaining that the issue of the meeting was under discussion.
For his part, the senior assistant to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Asghar Khaji, said on September 18 that one of the matters being discussed is how to cooperate between Turkey and the Syrian regime, with the participation of Iran and Russia, without specifying the implementation mechanism.
No substantive progress
As for the position of the Syrian regime on the path of rapprochement, it is summed up by demanding a Turkish withdrawal from Syria in order to reach a tangible result and Erdogan’s meeting with al-Assad, who did not spare any occasion to attack Ankara, the person of the Turkish president, and the Ottoman ideology.
When asked about the possibility of meeting with the Turkish President, al-Assad said during an exclusive interview with Sky News Arabia on August 9 that the goal for him is Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory, while Erdogan’s goal is “legitimizing the presence of the Turkish occupation in Syria,” stressing that the meeting cannot take place “under Erdogan’s conditions.”
Mahmoud Alloush, the international relations expert told Enab Baladi that the path of Turkish rapprochement with the regime was able to launch a new situation in Turkish-Syrian relations and the Turkish position on Syria in general, although this situation did not lead to a serious change in Turkish policy towards Syria, because the path is complex, and it will naturally take a long time to bear fruit on the ground.
Alloush believes that the Turkish conditions for re-normalizing relations with the regime are logical, especially the issue of a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Syria, in addition to the position on combating terrorism, since the Turkish priority currently is to reach a position that allows it to work more to undermine the ability of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) on threatening Turkish interests.
The issue of combating terrorism is not only related to the dynamics of Turkish-Syrian relations but also to Turkish-American differences and the American role in northeastern Syria, according to the researcher.
“The path of rapprochement has reached a point that must be addressed before starting to develop the path. Additional meetings were held, and are evident in agreement on a road map. There will be no point in the meetings before progress is made in the road map,” Alloush added.
Regarding the future of the track, the expert indicated that there will be no progress at the foreseeable level due to a group of complex factors, most notably the Syrian regime’s requirements to set a timetable for Turkish withdrawal from Syria, which is not on the agenda of Turkish policy in Syria for several considerations,
In addition to factors related to the Turkish-American relationship and Turkish-American interactions in Syria, despite the presence of a Turkish desire to follow the path to reach results that may be beneficial to Ankara, such as cooperation with the regime, Russia, and Iran in combating terrorism, and paving the way for the return of a portion of the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
At the same time, transferring relations between Turkey and the regime will require more time and diplomacy, more capable of creating ideas that contribute to this field, although the possibility of making fundamental progress on this path in the foreseeable future is very limited, according to the researcher.
After al-Assad’s statements last August, during which he attacked Turkey on Sky News Arabia, saying that “the terrorism in Syria is a Turkish industry,” the former Turkish ambassador to Damascus, Ömer Önhon, who is the last Turkish ambassador to Syria, explained that what al-Assad said in the interview was not new, and it was a repetition of what he had been saying for months.
The Turkish Defense Minister at the time also stressed the inconceivability of leaving Syria without ensuring the security of the Turkish borders, pointing out the sensitivity of this issue to Ankara.
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