The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends, bringing together unique opinions upon the topic and reliable foresight into possible future scenarios. Today we will focus the spotlight upon the latest Russian efforts to normalise relations between Ankara and Damascus during the recent quadrilateral talks held in Moscow.
On April 3 and 4, representatives from Russia, Türkiye, Syria, and Iran met in Moscow to partake in a Kremlin-led bid to restore diplomatic ties between Ankara and Damascus after years of frayed relationships. Prior to this, a previous summit held between Turkish and Syrian defence ministers at the end of December had been marked the highest meeting between the two sides since the onset of the Syrian civil conflict. Despite a shared intention to continue consultations, the outcome of the quadripartite talks held in the Russian capital has remained uncertain, as evidently Türkiye and Syria still have many significant barriers to overcome before a mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached. On the one hand, Damascus considers the end of Türkiye’s illegal deployment within northern Syria and the support of the Syrian opposition as key central elements of any possible deal with Ankara. On the other hand, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been vocal in urging the Assad regime to take tangible steps towards favouring the return of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently displaced within Turkish territory (especially so as he undergoes landmark national elections in May). These would be intricate knots to untie also for Russia, which is looking for a primary diplomatic role to play between these two sides (as further demonstrated by the visit of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Türkiye two days after the Moscow summit).
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to the outcomes of the quadrilateral meeting for Turkey-Syria relations in Moscow.
Despite the normalisation process, Turkish interests in Syria continue to worry Damascus
“Damascus’ first interest is to end Türkiye’s support for the Syrian political and military opposition, as well as Turkish pressure on the Syrian opposition to accept an agreement with the regime in which Assad’s ascendancy would remain stronger. The Syrian regime also wants to join efforts with Türkiye against a perceived mutual enemy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the US presence within north-eastern Syria, in addition to economic interests related to opening borders, transit, and trade. However, the main obstacle remains to be that of the refugee issue, as Türkiye continues to demand that the regime take serious steps forward to ensure the safety of refugees in order to encourage their return, which the regime is currently avoiding. In addition, the regime’s continued intransigence in demanding the withdrawal of Turkish forces before Türkiye receives security guarantees will all but further complicate negotiations, as evidenced by the postponement of the Moscow quadripartite meeting. Added to this are the expected disagreements that lay ahead regarding support for the Syrian opposition, as Türkiye does not want to lose something in which it has so heavily invested in since 2011.”
Suhail al-Ghazi, Syrian Researcher; and former Non-Resident Fellow, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Reconciliation for Türkiye serves its domestic policy objectives
“Reconciliation between Türkiye and Syria could rapidly turn into an anti-Kurdish Alliance. In the short term, reconciliation with Syria is more about domestic politics than strategic calculations. Türkiye goes to the polls in forty days, and Erdogan wants to demonstrate before the elections that he can solve the country’s refugee problem by reconciling with the Assad regime – a long-standing promise of the Turkish opposition. In the longer term, however, the reconciliation could also enable Ankara to cooperate with Damascus in its fight against Kurdish militants within northern Syria. Türkiye has been trying to undermine the Kurdish political autonomy in Syria (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria-AANES) and has so far carried out several military operations and controls a significant part of Syrian territory. However, Kurdish autonomy remains solid in most of north-eastern Syria, and further Turkish operations against AANES would require both American and Russian approval, which seems unlikely at the moment. Ankara hopes to eventually bring Damascus on board and thus place pressure on AANES from both sides.”
Salim Çevik, Associate, Centre for Applied Turkey Studies, SWP
Russia’s interests in the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement
“On the one hand, Damascus considers the end of Türkiye’s illegal deployment within northern Syria and the support of the Syrian opposition as key central elements of any possible deal with Ankara. On the other hand, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been vocal in urging the Assad regime to take tangible steps towards favouring the return of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently displaced within Turkish territory (especially so as he undergoes landmark national elections in May). These would be intricate knots to untie also for Russia, which is looking for a primary diplomatic role to play between these two sides (as further demonstrated by the visit of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Türkiye two days after the Moscow summit).”
Chiara Lovotti, ISPI
Repairing diplomatic relations with Damascus looks like the “recent contagion” in the MENA region
“The regional normalization process with Damascus is currently in full swing. Most Middle East countries are now talking with Syria. Diplomacy and repairing regional relations seem to be the recent contagion – and it’s high time. Two decades of war, uprisings, and toppling regimes have ravaged the Middle East. Yet I am optimistic that Syria and Türkiye will normalize relations, even if the road is long and bumpy, which it is sure to be. The two countries share a 764 km border. They also share a common interest in getting American troops out of Syria, stopping the arming of the Kurds, and cracking down on ‘terrorism’. Syria wants Türkiye’s help suppressing Jawlani’s fighters in Idlib and others within northwest Syria. In exchange, Syria has offered to help Türkiye fight the PKK and related Kurdish groups in northeast Syria. What to do with the millions of Syrian refugees is another thorny topic. Looming over the talks are the Turkish elections. Assad would like Erdogan to lose. His opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is more congenial to Syria’s interests and has said he will withdraw from the 10% of Syria that Türkiye now controls.”
Joshua Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi