Moscow hosted a series of meetings between the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey on 3-4 April in its latest push to promote normalisation between Ankara and Damascus and to counter Western influence in Syria.
“The peoples of Turkey and Syria are bound by centuries of common history, the chapters of which are filled with events that instill pride in the hearts of the Turks, Arabs, and Kurds. Religious and cultural commonality, as well as geographical proximity, makes mutually beneficial and neighbourly cooperation between Turkey and Syria the only choice available,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his welcome address before the beginning of the four-party consultations.
Although the Russian-brokered consultations helped to bridge the gap between Ankara and Damascus to some extent, challenges remain. Syria insists that it must receive guarantees from Turkey that it will cease its support for terrorist groups in Syria and its military occupation of Syrian territory before there can be any normalisation of relations.
In March, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that he would not meet his Turkish counterpart until Turkish military forces were withdrawn from his country. Turkey has backed Al-Qaeda-affiliated and other radical Islamist groups in the Syrian provinces of Afrin and Idlib, which have been under de facto Turkish military administration for nearly eight years.
Nevertheless, the Russian mediation succeeded in reducing Syrian-Turkish tensions, and it reportedly persuaded the two sides to agree to continue negotiations, primarily over the Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory. Some observers also do not rule out the possibility of a meeting between the two countries’ presidents in the coming weeks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is particularly keen for such a meeting to take place ahead of the forthcoming elections in Turkey in order to convince public opinion at home that he is committed to ending the conflict with Syria preparatory to repatriating millions of Syrian refugees, which has been a hot-button issue in the lead-up to the elections.
Moscow and Tehran have also taken advantage of the humanitarian sentiments stirred up by the dual earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on 6 February to break Syria’s international isolation and promote the legitimacy of the government in Damascus.
In this regard, the talks built on previous steps related to urgent relief for earthquake victims in Syria, such as the agreement by Damascus in mid-February to open two additional border crossings with Turkey to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief to stricken areas in northern Syria.
However, it is impossible to view such developments in isolation from other major events regionally and internationally, not least the ongoing war in Ukraine. In a development related to this, during his visit to Turkey on 6-7 April Lavrov threatened to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative unless action is taken to address his country’s concerns over unblocking Russian agricultural and fertiliser exports, which are not covered by sanctions, and the failure of the grain shipments to reach the intended recipients, namely the neediest countries in the Global South.
Turkish officials, who brokered the initiative, are working to ensure it is renewed again when it expires.
Against this backdrop, Russia is eager to push Turkey and Syria to resume their relations as quickly as possible, not only as a way to help its ally in Damascus, but also as a countermove in the larger framework of the international theatre in which Turkey is a key player at various levels.
During his joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on 7 April, Lavrov underscored the progress that has been made towards normalisation in the course of various meetings between Turkish and Syrian officials since December and up to the recent consultations at the deputy foreign minister level this month and added that the process is already underway to arrange a meeting at the foreign minister level.
With regard to a solution to the Syrian conflict, the deputy ministerial consultations in Moscow sought to consolidate and build on progress achieved in the framework of the Russian-led Astana Process, which includes Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus.
In remarks to the press on 8 March, Cavusoglu reiterated his government’s stance that the Astana Process “is the only surviving format to address the Syrian crisis.” All four parties are keen to sustain the momentum of this process towards reaching substantive agreements on the constitutional track and then a comprehensive settlement.
They fear that Washington and its allies will attempt to undermine this drive, perhaps through secret dialogue geared to advancing pro-US groups in Syria to the detriment of the Astana Process members and their respective interests.
As representatives from Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria worked to cement a unified vision in the face of Western policies, including the packages of sanctions against each of them, the US and its European allies have continued to notch up the pressure. While Moscow is the primary target in the light of the war in Ukraine, it is noteworthy how the European countries have shifted away from a relatively neutral stance on the Iranian nuclear programme and towards Washington’s hardline stance on Iran.
The West, led by the US, also remains bent on perpetuating the blockade against the Syrian regime, in which respect it supports the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which seek to establish an autonomous region in northern and eastern Syria. US forces continue to maintain a presence in that portion of Syrian territory.
The European countries also appear to be aligned closely with Washington’s campaign to notch up the pressure on Turkey in relation to human rights and civil liberties. The recently released annual US State Department “country reports on human rights practices” contain a subsection detailing various human rights violations in Turkey in 2022 and generally condemns the deteriorating state of human rights in the country.
But what Erdogan and his government have found more provocative was the recent visit by US Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake to the main opposition candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“We need to teach America a lesson in the [coming] elections,” Erdogan said, as reported by the Turkish Cumhuriyet newspaper. “What is [US President Joe] Biden’s ambassador doing here? He goes and visits Kemal. Shame on you! Use your mind a little. You’re the ambassador. The person you are supposed to address here is the president.”
The four-party consultations in Moscow cannot be seen independently from major developments in each of the countries concerned. Turkey is on the threshold of landmark elections on 14 May, and Erdogan is desperate to score a foreign policy victory to distract from the widespread disgruntlement with the country’s economic straits and the criticisms the opposition parties have been levelling against the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) handling of everything from the economy to the aftermath of the recent earthquakes, not to mention the Syrian conflict and the question of Syrian refugees.
Opposition candidates have gained considerable ground against their AKP rivals in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections, according to recent opinion polls. The AKP’s main rival the CHP has long advocated the restoration of relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Iran continues to face ongoing protests that Tehran believes the Western countries have been exploiting in order to increase pressure on the regime. A solution to the Syrian conflict would be an avenue towards mitigating such pressures.
Similarly, Russia has been working to strengthen its regional alliances as part of efforts to safeguard its interests and offset pressures, as well as to reduce the problems it has to deal with abroad while it focuses on the war in Ukraine.
As for the Syrian regime, it needs to emerge from its regional and international isolation, which has had disastrous consequences for the Syrian economy and the living standards of the Syrian people.
If the quadrilateral consultations in Moscow achieved major steps towards the goals of reducing tensions, promoting a Syrian settlement, and generating an environment conducive to normalisation, further progress will hinge on a multiplicity of interweaving factors.
Not only do these include the formidable outstanding differences between Ankara and Damascus, but also the diverse problems that concern each of the four parties. All four countries will need to find ways to manage these complex problems, while remaining focused on the realisation of their common goals.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly