After Russian stubbornness: Path of rapprochement between Turkey and Syrian regime collapses

The quartet meeting in Moscow on Syria - May 10, 2023 (Turkish Foreign Minister at the time, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu/Twitter)

The quartet meeting in Moscow on Syria - May 10, 2023 (Turkish Foreign Minister at the time, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu/Twitter)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

Despite a noticeable decline in the momentum of the Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime over the past months, none of the parties of the quartet involved in the process (Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime) officially announced an impediment to the path; that is, until the Russian President’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, spoke up on January 29.

At the time, Lavrentiev declared that the matter of normalizing political relations between the Syrian regime and Turkey had collapsed at the end of the year 2023, explaining that the process had somewhat halted at the end of the previous autumn. This was because the Syrian side felt it was necessary to obtain guarantees from the Turkish side that the military forces present in Syria would withdraw “in the long term.”

According to what the Russian TASS news agency quoted from the official, “no one says that these military forces will be withdrawn in the near future,” yet this is unacceptable for Ankara for certain reasons.

Lavrentiev clarified that Ankara does not want to make this path official, which constitutes a major obstacle for Damascus since the Syrian people would not understand the actions of their government (i.e., negotiating with a country that “occupies” an approximate area nearly the size of Lebanon).

He also emphasized that the issue of normalizing Turkish relations with Damascus remains at the forefront of the Russian approach towards Syria, with the belief that this issue is important and that progress needs to be made.

Looking at the nature of the movements on this path, and the state of push and pull that has occurred within it, along with the political messages exchanged between its two main parties, the outcome reached does not seem surprising, except for Moscow’s emergence from a state of stubbornness and insistence on continuation and follow-up, along with holding meetings without tangible results interspersed with mutual and consistent conditions that have not shifted, to a state of acknowledging the cessation of the process.

Moreover, the period of pause in the process last autumn was followed, on July 28, 2023, by Russian statements indicating that a meeting of the quartet’s foreign ministers was under discussion, but their schedules needed to coincide, and that the process of rapprochement was ongoing and the matter of the meeting under debate. This was in addition to the announcement by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in September 2023, that Moscow was working on improving the roadmap for relations between Ankara and Damascus.

Bogdanov stated at the time that Moscow calls for a four-party meeting on the normalization of relations between both parties as soon as possible, without specifying when, pointing out that “we have no time to waste, we must move as quickly as possible, and go forward with that,” according to him.

Political messages

Since the official launch of the process with the meeting of the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia, and the regime on December 28, 2022, and what was followed by Iranian intrusions on the track of negotiations turning it into a quartet, all the path’s meetings were held in the Russian capital, Moscow, except for the last meeting, which took place in Astana, coinciding with the 20th round of the international meeting in the Astana format on Syria on June 20 and 21, 2023.

The 21st round of the Astana peace process, on January 24 and 25, did not witness a similar meeting following the tradition of previous ones, limiting the matter to bilateral meetings that preceded the expanded discussions, without bringing together the Turkish delegation with the Syrian regime delegation. Instead, the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister, Ahmet Yıldız, met only with the Syrian opposition delegation.

On November 10, 2023, the regime’s president Bashar al-Assad participated in the Arab-Islamic summit on Gaza, in Riyadh, which was the only summit that brought him and the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, under one roof since the start of the uprising in Syria in 2011, yet the press cameras did not capture any public handshake between the two sides, despite Erdoğan standing close to al-Assad to exchange a brief conversation with the Egyptian president before returning to his place between the Palestinian and Iranian presidents.

While al-Assad delivered his speech, Erdoğan left the hall, and the Turkish diplomatic representation was continued by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who removed his translation earpiece and was preoccupied with his mobile phone, expressing indifference.

When asked about the objectives of the military operation in Iraq and Syria during an interview with Al Jazeera Net website in January, the Turkish Defense Minister, Yaşar Güler, stated that Ankara’s position is clear regarding fighting “terrorist organizations.”

He added, “When the threats and risks our country faces from northern Syria and Iraq end, and when an environment of peace and security is established, we will do what is necessary like any other party, when the conditions are right.”

Turkey has been engaged in a continuous struggle for years against groups and formations in Iraq and Syria that Ankara classifies on its “terrorism” lists, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria, seeing the first as the ideological and military extension of the other two in northeastern Syria.

Conditions on both sides

Since the beginning of the process, the Syrian regime set conditions that al-Assad described as “constants” in March 2023, epitomized by the Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory, to reach a result spawned by the negotiations between both parties.

The regime’s conditions were met with conditions from Ankara, which appeared for the first time in the Yeni Şafak newspaper on June 26, 2023, just days after the last meeting of the process.

The newspaper stated at the time that there are four Turkish conditions for normalizing relations with Damascus, consisting of reaching a constitutional amendment and fair elections in Syria, the safe and honorable return of Syrian refugees, and cooperation in combating “terrorism,” specifically regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Ankara sees the Syrian Democratic Forces as its ideological and military extension in northeastern Syria).

In September of the same year, the Turkish Defense Minister emphasized the need to create a new constitution, conduct democratic elections, and form a government that embraces all Syrians, adding, “If these conditions are met, we will happily leave Syria.”

He also promised, in December 2023, to end the military presence of his country’s army in Syria as soon as “security is restored in the neighboring state,” noting that the forces will return home if the regime and the opposition agree on a new constitution and conduct elections to ensure stability.

These Turkish conditions, all of which appeared after the Turkish presidential elections that disappointed al-Assad with a political change in Turkey that could accelerate the rapprochement, did not receive an official response or comment from the regime which remained stalled at the first square in the quadrilateral negotiations (the issue of withdrawal).

A state of stalemate, A shared need

The researcher in international relations, Mahmoud Alloush, explained to Enab Baladi that the path of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus has reached a state of deadlock, which cannot be considered a complete collapse, as it constitutes a need for all parties, especially after it reached a sensitive point, which is agreement on a roadmap. This means the necessity of consensus on the main political points between the two parties, indicating that the deadlock in this case is natural, without evidence proving a stop to Russian efforts in this regard behind the scenes.

Alloush pointed out that when Turkey made a turn in its stance towards the regime, its aim was to cooperate on security with the regime and its allies in fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and to pave the way for the return of refugees, as well as to push the political settlement process. Before achieving these goals, a Turkish withdrawal from Syria is improbable, and discussing this item currently does not serve the dialogue between the two parties.

 

Everyone realizes that Turkey will not withdraw before achieving the goals of its presence in Syria, especially that this presence is an essential pressure card on Damascus and its allies to accommodate its interests in Syria.

Mahmoud Alloush, Researcher in International Relations.

 

According to the researcher, there is a growing conviction in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran that a near withdrawal of Turkey from Syria is unlikely, and everyone realizes that the issue is not on the agenda in the foreseeable future. He also refers to Tehran and Moscow’s role in pushing the rapprochement forward and providing suitable conditions for negotiation.

Dialogue is a necessity for all parties and is relatively linked to the Astana process, alongside the shared objectives of the Quadrilateral parties, despite the complexities that face convergence. It is not advisable to raise the stakes. Ankara’s goal is not so much to repair relations with the regime as it is to create a suitable environment to address the Syrian conflict. Hence, Turkey is raising the bar for its demands against the regime, as it is in a better position compared to the period before and during the presidential elections. The incentives for making concessions to the Syrian regime in the rapprochement process are no longer as they were before for Ankara.

Following the Iranian President’s visit to Turkey on January 24, which did not yield any publicly announced statements adding anything new to the Syrian issue, it is scheduled that the Russian President will also visit Turkey in the coming period to meet his Turkish counterpart, before a meeting that will bring the three leaders together in Moscow this year, within a tripartite summit in the Astana format.

Türki̇ye newspaper (founded in 1970), in its report published on January 22, stated that Turkey wants to change the status of Aleppo, alter the terms of the city’s reconstruction, and the return of civilians, to alleviate the refugee pressure, and restore Aleppo’s original identity after it was transformed into a Shiite city, with the arrival of more than 50,000 Shiites to the city since 2016. This will be a principal item on the agenda of the talks between the Turkish and Russian presidents, as Ankara will request an end to the demographic, cultural, and religious invasion, ensuring the return of Aleppo’s residents to their homes.

 

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