Sochi Summit Paves Way for Restoring of Relations between Ankara, Assad

Turkish, Syrian Sides Have Conditions for Negotiations; SDF Common Denominator
Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. Sputnik/Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Pool via REUTERS
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia August 5, 2022. Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

Although the repercussions of the Ukrainian war overshadowed the talks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting at the Sochi summit, the Syrian crisis was also the most prominent topic discussed by the two sides.

So, how will the outcomes of this summit be reflected on the ground, especially since Moscow and Ankara have been robustly present in Syria since the outbreak of the war nearly a decade ago?

On his way back from the Russian city of Sochi overlooking the Black Sea, the Turkish president stressed the need to settle differences with the Syrian regime and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

He considers that the position of his Russian counterpart towards Turkey and its war against "terrorism" is a "fair" position, as he put it, even though Moscow did not explicitly approve of a new military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara has been threatening to launch since about three months ago.

TURKISH INTELLIGENCE COMMUNICATES WITH SYRIAN COUNTERPART

Erdogan literally said that "Putin is hinting that if we choose to work on finding a solution to terrorism with the Assad regime as much as possible, it will be more logical," explaining that his response to this proposal was by saying that the "Turkish intelligence is basically coordinating with the regime's intelligence in this regard."

The Turkish President's statements about cooperation with the Assad regime came at the conclusion of the Sochi summit, which was held for four hours on August 5. Similar statements were followed by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who said at the end of last July that Ankara was ready to provide support for the regime's political struggle against the Syrian Democratic Forces, which it sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been waging an armed rebellion against Turkey since 1984.

TURKEY TRYING TO OPEN UP TO ALL COUNTRIES, INCLUDING SYRIA

Political analyst Ghassan Youssef from the Syrian capital, Damascus, said, "The relations between Damascus and Ankara have not been severed, and there is so far a Syrian consulate in Istanbul. There are contacts between Turkish and Syrian intelligence.”

Youssef added to Majalla, "If relations between Syria and Turkey are not restored during the current president Erdogan's era, they will return during the era of his successor, but if he wins the elections again and if Moscow continues to persuade the two sides to return to negotiations and to the Adana Agreement, relations will return between Damascus and Ankara in particular.”

Turkey has recently been pursuing a zero-problem policy with neighboring countries that former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was talking about years ago. Today, it has restored relations with a number of Arab countries and is trying to do the same with Greece and Israel.

He continued, "Turkey has no options but to restore relations with Syria, but this matter will only be achieved under Syrian conditions."

REGIME HAS STRICT CONDITIONS FOR NEGOTIATING WITH ANKARA

The Syrian regime already has several strict conditions for conducting negotiations with Turkey on a higher level than the current contacts between the intelligence services of the two sides.

Damascus requires Ankara to withdraw, in whole or in part, its military forces from a number of Syrian areas it controls, as a prerequisite for starting any dialogue with the Turkish side. This comes in addition to dissolving armed groups opposed to Assad supported by Ankara and stopping support for extremist groups in Idlib and its countryside.

No diplomatic meetings have taken place between Syrian and Turkish officials so far, according to a source in the regime's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates in Damascus.

The source stressed that "all the Syrian-Turkish meetings have been limited to military and intelligence figures since the beginning of the crisis, but Moscow has been working on a Syrian-Turkish rapprochement for months."

ANKARA ALSO HAS CONDITIONS

On the other hand, Ankara also has predetermined conditions for negotiating with Damascus, which precede the refugee matter in terms of importance and are related to the issue of the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces on the southern borders of Turkey. It is in the areas under the control of the SDF supported by the United States and the international coalition led by it against ISIS that Ankara sees as a threat to its "national security."

Ankara does not hide its approval of the regime forces’ control over the entire border strip between Syria and Turkey, instead of the Syrian Democratic Forces that have already moved more than thirty kilometers away from those areas.  This arrangement was made after a double agreement was reached between Ankara and Washington, on the one hand, and Ankara and Moscow, on the other hand, following a double agreement between Ankara and Washington. 

The last military operation launched by the Turkish army against the SDF was in October, 2019.

Turkey fears the SDF in terms of the participation of the Kurds in its ranks, although it also includes Arab, Syriac-Assyrian and Armenian armed groups, as it fears the transfer of this dynamic to the other side of the border, where there are millions of Kurds and different ethnic and religious minorities.

DIFFERENCE IN POSITION OF TURKEY, SYRIA ON SDF

Although the official Turkish and Syrian positions on the SDF experience are almost unified, the regime does not classify the SDF as a "terrorist" group, in contrast to Turkey, and this is one of the points of contention between the two sides.

Another government source from Damascus told Majalla that "Damascus does not mind weakening the SDF, but at the same time it does not see the solution to confronting it militarily. Therefore, any rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara must be preceded by a larger government presence in the SDF areas, which has not happened so far."

It is likely that any talks between Turkish and Syrian officials may mean a return to the Adana security agreement between the two sides, which dates back to 1998 and is related to the pursuit of armed groups by both states on both sides of the border between the two countries.

In this regard, political analyst Youssef did not rule out Moscow's hosting of security meetings between Syria and Turkey to achieve this purpose.

He also said that "security meetings have already taken place between the two sides in Moscow, at the Hmeimim base, and in the Syrian town of Kasab."

He added, "The meetings between the two sides will continue further if the Turkish side is serious about resolving the Syrian crisis."

ADANA AGREEMENT MIGHT BE A CONVENIENT SOLUTION 

According to Youssef, putting the Adana agreement on the negotiating table is a Syrian and Russian demand alike.

He believed that, "the Adana Agreement may ultimately be the best solution for the Syrian and Turkish sides, because they do not want a confrontation between the two countries against the background of a common threat to them from the SDF."

For Ankara and Damascus alike, the Syrian Democratic Forces represent the greatest danger, but the American support provided to SDF may hinder the Turkish and Syrian endeavors at the same time.

While Ankara classifies the SDF as a "terrorist" group and finds in it an extension of the PKK, Damascus accuses it of colluding with what the Assad regime calls the American occupier in addition to describing it as a "separatist" militia, a description that Ankara also uses when speaking about the SDF.

Turkish state media reported that the issue of the SDF and Idlib was among the most prominent subjects that the Turkish president discussed with his Russian counterpart at the Sochi summit, which was held last week.

Moscow reiterated its refusal for Turkey to launch any military operation inside Syrian territory targeting the SDF, which may mean intensifying communication between Ankara and the Assad regime to remove the SDF from Turkey's southern borders in exchange for the regime's expansion in those areas, in addition to Idlib.

REFUGEE ISSUE WILL BE PRESENT BETWEEN ANKARA AND ASSAD

Turkish sources also did not rule out discussions between Ankara and Assad on the issue of returning Syrian refugees from Turkey to their country, especially with the approach of the presidential and parliamentary elections that Turkey will conduct less than a year from now.

At the end of their summit in Sochi on the fifth of this month, the Russian and Turkish presidents affirmed their determination to coordinate action and solidarity in combating all "terrorist organizations" in Syria, without explicitly identifying them in the text of the joint final statement.

The joint final statement published by the Russian presidency stressed the importance of advancing the political process in Syria, stressing the "necessity of preserving Syria's political unity and territorial integrity."

In conjunction with security issues related to the Syrian crisis, the two leaders agreed in the economic fields to increase the volume of bilateral trade on a balanced basis to meet mutual expectations regarding the economy and energy, and to take concrete steps, especially with regard to sectors such as transport, trade, agriculture, industry, finance, tourism and construction.

The Russian president and his Turkish counterpart stressed the need to ensure the full implementation of the Istanbul Agreement "in letter and substance," including the unhindered export of Russia's stocks of grain and fertilizers, as well as raw materials for their production.

According to the Russian statement, the two leaders agreed to hold the next meeting of the high-level Turkish-Russian Cooperation Council in Turkey, without specifying a date.

The meeting of the two presidents came after meeting with their Iranian counterpart, Ibrahim Raisi, during the tripartite summit of heads of guarantor states of the Astana process on Syria in the Iranian capital, Tehran, last July.

The Tehran summit was concluded with the three presidents issuing a final statement, on the nineteenth of last July, which included 16 items that summarized the three parties' vision of the current situation in Syria.


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