The meeting in Moscow between the ministers of defence of Turkey and Syria on 28 December took many by surprise. It was seen as a radical departure from Turkey’s aversion to warming up to the Syrian regime after 11 years of hostility, and the meeting triggered a barrage of statements denouncing the encounter.
The meeting, attended by Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar, Syrian Minister of Defence Mahmoud Abbas, and their Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, was the first at this level since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. It aimed to “discuss ways of resolving the crisis in Syria,” according to a statement by the Russian Defence Ministry.
Ahead of the meeting, there were early indicators that the two sides were drawing closer. The chiefs of intelligence of Turkey and Syria have met several times, but the meetings were not followed by political statements, except for Turkey saying they were necessary for security.
However, the latest meeting was followed by political statements, most notably by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 5 January, who said he might meet with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad as part of the new peace process.
“In politics, there are no permanent enemies,” Erdogan declared. A three-way meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia, and Syria to further improve communications is planned. Depending on developments, the two presidents may also meet.
Over the past 11 years, Turkey has supported the Syrian political and armed opposition. After Russia intervened in Syria militarily on the side of the regime in 2015, Ankara began to focus its efforts on fighting the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG), which are affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey and several European countries categorise the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
Despite US support for the SDF to maintain control of northeast Syria, Turkey does not want this group to be based along its southeastern border and has threatened to launch a broad military attack by land with the help of the armed Syrian opposition to expel it from the region.
Turkey wants to create a “buffer zone” in the area to encourage the return of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey.
At the same time, Russia has worked hard to prevent a Turkish military incursion into northern Syria and encouraged Erdogan not to launch a military campaign. One result of the present discussions would be to replace the SDF by Syrian regime forces with Russian guarantees in return for normalising relations with its ally in Damascus.
“Theoretically, this deal is a win-win one for everyone,” said Saeed Moqbel, a Syrian political analyst.
“Russia will become the party with the most influence in Syria, and the Syrian regime needs to normalise its relations with Turkey because this will help it to argue that those countries that have supported Al-Assad’s removal were mistaken and have started to correct their mistakes.”
“Turkey is at the forefront of these countries, and the Turkish leadership will also win on two fronts, abroad by eliminating the SDF threat and domestically for Erdogan’s re-election campaign in which he has indicated that the Syrian refugees in Turkey will return home in response to opponents criticising him for hosting millions of refugees.”
Rami Al-Shaer, a Moscow-based political analyst close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that “we will soon see a meeting between the foreign ministers of Syria and Turkey, which will be followed by a meeting of the leaders of the two countries before June. The immediate next steps on the ground have already been decided and will be taken as a matter of urgency.”
The developments have worried the Syrian opposition, which has issued several statements criticising the Syrian regime.
On 3 January, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attempted to reassure the opposition by saying that “there is no normalisation taking place or meetings with the Syrian regime, no matter what the opposition says.”
He said he would meet with his Syrian counterpart in the second half of January, and later there would be an assessment of the two presidents meeting. After these statements, Cavusoglu met with the Syrian opposition.
Salem Al-Muslet, head of the National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces and a member of the Syrian opposition, noted that “Turkey is a strong ally of the Syrian Revolution and the Syrian opposition. It is a major supporter of the aspirations of the Syrian people in achieving freedom, dignity and democracy.”
He underlined the opposition’s determination to activate the political process “to reach a comprehensive political transition that will pave the way for a new chapter for Syria.”
Despite Turkish reassurances, Turkey’s position has opened the door for many predictions about what options are left for the Syrian opposition if Turkey normalises ties with the Syrian regime, especially since Turkey is also home to most opposition leaders and institutions.
Salem Madniya, a Syrian researcher, said that “the Syrian opposition is not failing because it is based in Turkey. It is weak at the foundations, and it has not effectively taken advantage of the Turkish position over an entire decade.”
“However, we cannot blame the opposition figures alone for this failure, because there were mitigating circumstances. The international community is the one that had failed over the course of 12 years. Turkey’s leverage over the opposition’s political and military decisions forced the latter to be silent.”
One key player that could yet turn the tables is the US, which supports the SDF. It has mostly adopted the role of observer and has not been a proactive player, but State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said recently that “we do not support states that strengthen their relations or express support for the rehabilitation of Bashar Al-Assad, a brutal dictator.”
He called on the international community to inspect the “horrific” human rights record of the Al-Assad regime over the past 12 years. The statements are enough to let everyone know that the US will oppose any rehabilitation of the Syrian regime if it becomes a tangible reality.
The US has adopted sanctions that isolate and harshly punish Syria and any country that deals with the regime. These cannot be circumvented easily, and any country that does so will be subjected to similar sanctions.
The US and Europe are also blocking all attempts to rebuild Syria until a political solution is implemented, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This means that Turkey and Russia cannot invest in Syria, except in its rubble.
Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Damascus on 4 January, with Syrian sources saying that the discussions focused on future UAE funding for Syria to alleviate its economic collapse.
European sources, however, said that the visit also related to Turkey and the path to normalising relations with the regime. They said that the UAE would become the guarantor of the Syrian regime if it makes promises in the deal that is under discussion with Turkey.
The Syrian regime had not commented on the developments, and it is thought that it is trying to slow down the normalisation process with a view to waiting until after the Turkish elections. Damascus also understands that it cannot do much about the SDF as long as the group is supported by Washington.
Iran has also remained silent and has not reacted to the Russian and Turkish moves. If Russia and Turkey succeed in reaching a new understanding with Damascus, it will probably end up drawing the short end of the stick in any new deal. Their influence will grow, while Tehran will gain nothing.
“Turkey is setting two preconditions before improving relations with the Syrian regime,” Moqbel said. “First, the regime should take control of the northeast of the country, completely eliminating any SDF presence. Second, the regime must begin a domestic peace and reconciliation process that will pave the way for the voluntary and safe return of millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey.”
“The Syrian regime is making two demands of Turkey. First, that Ankara should cooperate with Damascus and seek a tangible rapprochement that curbs the role of armed Syrian opposition groups. Second, for Turkey and Russia to contribute to opening doors for Syria to restore relations with the rest of the world and the Arab countries as well as for reconstruction.”
“These four conditions will be difficult to achieve right now for subjective and international political reasons.”
So far, there are no real indicators that Ankara and Damascus are moving closer to each other, with each studying the other and what can be achieved.
It is unlikely that there will be any major breakthroughs in Turkish-Syrian relations or real change on the ground, especially since the Syrian regime cannot meet Turkey’s expectations, whether in terms of fighting Kurdish separatists or returning refugees.
At best, the friction between the two sides will subside as they continue to coordinate on specific security matters, but this will not necessarily lead to a normalisation of relations.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly