By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay
Turkish, Syrian and Russian defense ministers and their intelligence chiefs held talks in Moscow on Wednesday as part of a growing normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Experts say that the meeting is a sign that Turkiye’s potential ground operation to northern Syria is off the immediate agenda. However, there is also a possibility that Turkish and Syrian militaries could conduct limited strikes against Syrian Kurdish YPG militia with Russian permission for airspace use.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his counterparts Hulusi Akar and Ali Mahmoud Abbas attended the meeting. It was the first time the defense ministers of Syria and Turkey have met since the start of the Syrian conflict 11 years ago.
Russia has long pushed for a reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara, which has backed rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad and has deployed troops on its neighbor’s territory.
The meeting focused on the Syrian crisis and refugees, as well as the joint fight against extremist groups. Turkiye’s Defense Ministry described the talks as being held in a “constructive atmosphere.”
On December 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also faces parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023, hinted at this new meeting, by saying: “We want Syria, Turkiye, and Russia to take a step as a trio. To do so, intelligence agencies, then ministers of defense, and finally ministers of foreign affairs should come together. Then, we, the leaders, could meet.”
The Turkish government is under intense pressure domestically to repatriate Syrian refugees, whose official numbers reached 3.7 million, amid the ongoing economic crisis.
The sides are expected to continue to hold trilateral meetings.
Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, said the meeting was a step toward establishing new ground rules for conflict management and de-escalation and may facilitate progress on the political and diplomatic level.
Lund said the issue of refugees would likely have been raised very early on given its priority for the Turkish side, and was probably also part of the preceding intelligence chief talks.
“Damascus and Ankara can seek agreement on distinct issues, such as refugee repatriation or the Kurdish question, without waiting for full political agreement or a conclusion to the peace process. It’s going to be a step-by-step process, in which they try to barter over several issues at the same time,” he told Arab News.
Now the hopes are pinned on the meeting of the foreign ministers of Syria and Turkiye. Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu briefly met with his Syrian counterpart in October 2021.
In a statement following the Wednesday meeting, Cavusoglu said: “The Syrian regime wants Syrians to return … it is important that Syrians repatriate to [safety]. In this regard, the engagement of the United Nations is key. We are still at the beginning of our talks.”
Lund said that Wednesday’s talks were related to Turkiye’s push for another incursion into Syria. Recent attempts have been blocked by Russia, and so direct talks with Damascus is seen as another option.
“Turkey remains interested in getting something done on the Kurdish front, and Turkish officials keep signaling that weakening the Syrian Democratic Forces remains one of their top priorities. We may see some form of joint action in Tal Rifaat or other areas in the coming weeks. There could also be some form of coordinated non-military pressure,” Lund said.
Lund foresees a frozen conflict scenario in Syria in 2023, but said that there was always a risk that the conflict will backslide into increased disintegration and violence.
“A divided Syria with some level of lingering conflict can be managed more or less effectively, or more or less sustainably. Turkish-Syrian reconciliation is a step in that direction. They’re hoping to set up new ground rules for how to handle the situation to their mutual benefit,” he added.
According to Lund, unless the current talks break down for some reason, he expected that they would culminate in an Assad-Erdogan contact at some point. It may start with a phone call or it may be a full summit. When that would happen was less clear, however.
“If both sides want it to happen, it may happen in spring 2023. Given that the Turkish elections are so important to Erdogan’s scheduling, he may want it to happen in April or May, or early June at the latest. They’ll need to sort out foreign minister meetings first, and Cavusoglu said that won’t happen until February at the earliest,” Lund said.
“It’s possible that they will be bogged down in disputes and negotiations, preventing a meeting before the Turkish elections,” he said.
“After that, it may seem less urgent for Erdogan, who could also have his hands full with domestic problems. So, my guess is we’ll either see some form of Erdogan-Assad contact this spring, around May or so, or it will be delayed with no clear deadline,” he added.
The talks between Syrian, Turkish and Russian authorities may however draw ire from the United States if they evolve into a joint operation into Syria against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG is a member.
“The potential withdrawal of US troops from Syria is at the center of Russian game plan and it binds Ankara and Damascus together. Turkiye’s involvement in this plan may serve a new fault line in Turkiye-US relations in the medium term,” Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkiye-Russia relations, told Arab News.
“While the immediate target of a ground operation of Turkiye, backed by Russia and Assad regime, would not involve areas where the US soldiers are deployed, it may advance towards further south, close to Tal Abyad countryside in the long run, which could spark risks of clashes with US soldiers,” he also added.
Therefore, for Sezer, Wednesday’s meeting may be considered as a last warning of Russia to Syrian Kurdish militia.
“If things go as expected, Putin may take a strategic step and convince Assad to shake hands with Erdogan in order to bring him gains in the presidential elections, because it will contribute to the popular hope that Turkiye will be able to repatriate refugees,” he said.