Russian-steered Turkish-Syrian rapprochement efforts rank as the second most significant game of diplomacy in the Middle East, overshadowed solely by the Chinese-brokered normalization attempts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. By Güney Yıldız in Forbes on April 27, 2023.
Two days ago, defense ministers and intelligence chiefs from Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran convened in Moscow for a crucial four-way meeting. A shift from the original tripartite meeting which included Russia, Turkey, and Syria, this quadripartite format showcases recognition of the significance of Iran’s potential to undermine agreements if sidelined.The inclusion of Iran in the talks has added an additional layer of complexity to the negotiations.
Although various countries such as the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia are involved in different rapprochement attempts with Syria, the Ankara-Damascus rapprochement carries the most weight in determining Syria’s future and the influence of the US and EU on the region’s future.
The US and the EU have declared their opposition to normalization attempts in a statement released on the 12th anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Despite this opposition, the rapprochement process continues, albeit with several challenges and obstacles.
The Ankara-Damascus rapprochement took center stage last year, following intelligence contacts between the two. The relations then upgraded into three-way talks between the defense ministers of Turkey, Syria, and Russia in December last year.
Turkish President Erdogan sought a meeting with Syrian President Assad as soon as possible, driven by three primary reasons. First, electoral pressures mounted as the Turkish population grew increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees. Domestically, Erdogan wanted the meeting to take place before the elections to demonstrate his efforts in returning Syrian refugees and alleviate the protesting reactions from his support base.
Second, Erdogan believed Assad would be more amenable to concessions before breaking his diplomatic isolation, with Arab nations already diverging from the US line and engaging with Assad. Turkey did not want to lag behind.
Third, Erdogan struggled to push against the Kurds as much as he desired. The Turkish military was reluctant, even with support or toleration from international forces. Despite enlisting widespread support in its campaigns against the Kurdish-led administrations in North East Syria, Turkey was unable to destabilize the region and roll back the Kurdish gains.
In contrast, Assad was not in a hurry to meet Erdogan. The Syrian leader believed time was on his side; the longer he waited, the stronger his leverage against Turkey would grow as he broke free from diplomatic isolation.
Moreover, the waiting game was the most important game played by the regime throughout the conflict. Damascus successfully waited out the breaking up of domestic, regional, and global hostility against the regime, witnessing the disintegration of domestic and regional anti-Assad coalitions.
Additionally, Assad did not want to help Erdogan gain electoral points through a deal. Despite Putin’s pressure, Assad prefers Erdogan to be replaced by an opposition government, as he wants to deal with a post-Erdogan Turkey to gradually rebuild trust for normalization of relations.
Sequencing Goals: The Challenges of Aligning Priorities
There are also several challenges and obstacles to the rapprochement. The first major sticking point is the issue of trust. Both sides harbor deep mistrust towards each other, with Assad’s mistrust of Erdogan being particularly pronounced.
The second sticking point is the sequencing of each party’s primary goals. Turkey prioritizes dismantling the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria and seeks a deal to repatriate Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. The Turkish population, across the political spectrum, is becoming increasingly hostile towards Syrian refugees, fueling Ankara’s urgency to address the issue.
On the other hand, the Assad regime demands Turkey’s withdrawal of its forces from Syria before discussing the dismantling of the Kurdish administration. The Syrian government does not share Turkey’s view of the Kurdish administration, and Damascus might be less hostile to a Kurdish status in Syria than Turkey. This difference in stance stems from Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issues, which shape the country’s regional approaches.
The Impact of Iran’s Inclusion: A Four-Way Meeting and its Implications for Turkey
An additional challenge emerged when the tripartite meetings between Russia, Turkey, and Syria had to be transformed into a four-way meeting with the inclusion of Iran. Tehran, initially sidelined in the negotiations, protested publicly, with the Iranian Foreign Minister stating they had learned about the negotiations from the press.
The meeting process evolved in stages, beginning with intelligence chief meetings between Turkey and Syria, and progressing to include defense ministers of Syria, Turkey, and Russia. Plans for foreign minister-level meetings in February were postponed multiple times. Iran’s involvement also contributed to the necessity to review past negotiations. As a result, the meetings, which were supposed to be raised to the level of Foreign Ministers by now, were downgraded to being between intelligence and defense minister level.
Today, the format of the meeting is to Turkey’s disadvantage. In the four-way meetings, Turkey speaks with one voice, but Syria potentially speaks with three voices through their own, Iran’s, and Russia’s. In comparison to Tehran, Moscow is more open to accommodating Turkish demands.
The Kurds Caught in the Crossfire of Turkey-Assad Rapprochement
The Turkey-Assad rapprochement puts the Kurds in a losing position. They have not utilized all available channels for a solution with the Syrian regime, nor have they leveraged Iran and Arab states in reaching an agreement with Turkey. Instead, Turkey explores all possible channels and possibly negotiates with the Kurdish movement through Ocalan and the PKK leadership.
However, Kurdish losses may not be as extensive as Turkey hopes. While Turkey seeks to erase Kurdish status, other regional actors like Iran, Syria, and Russia are content with Turkey addressing the Kurdish issue. The Assad regime also worries about the local power dynamics if the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) were to vanish.
The United States’ ambiguous role and the way forward
As the situation unfolds, the United States’ role in the region remains ambiguous. The mixed signals sent by the US in recent months, such as high-level US military visits to the region, have heightened concerns among regional actors, particularly Turkey and Iran. The possibility of the US renewing its commitment to the region and strengthening its presence adds a layer of complexity to the already intricate web of regional relationships.
For the US to have a constructive impact on the region, it must be clear and strategic in its actions. The US presence in Northeast Syria and its partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is one of the most significant leverages the US might have in the region.