Sergei Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, said in a press conference that the Syrian and Turkish foreign ministers’ meeting is being prepared with Russian mediation and that Turkey supports the normalization of relations with the Syrian regime. Lavrov noted that Ankara had asked Moscow for assistance in this regard, that the Syrian regime appeared to be in no hurry to begin the dialogue, and that its agreement to participate in the tripartite meetings was the result of Russian pressures.
However, the Syrian regime hopes that any reconciliation will result in a Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory in exchange for at least partially caving in to these pressures to find a path of communication with Turkey.
Conflict Breakout between Turkey and Syria
The Syrian crisis prompted Turkey to rethink its calculations, especially given the importance of Syria to Turkey due to its immediate geographic proximity with borders stretching nearly 900 kilometers, its role as Turkey’s gateway and sole outlet to the Arab world, the similarity of the sectarian, social, and ethnic makeup of the two countries, Turkey’s fears that the Syrian Kurds will seek independence and create an autonomous region similar to Iraq’s Kurdistan, the crisis’s potential negative impact on the country’s internal situation, and the fear of a large influx of Syrian refugees into Turkish territory
In effect, the Syrian crisis ended the Turkish-Syrian alliance as a result of Turkey’s support for the widespread protests. This gave rise to reciprocal policies that revealed the depth of the conflict between the two countries. Such a conflict was primarily manifested at the borders, whether in the form of Syrian refugees migrating to Turkey and the severe security and economic repercussions that followed, or in the form of Turkey’s embrace of the political opposition forces and the rebelling soldiers. Syria, on the other hand, withdrew from the Syrian Kurdish border cities, leaving the responsibility for their protection to members of the Democratic Union Party, an ally of the Turkish opposition Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Evidently, Damascus was exerting pressure on Ankara by playing the Kurdish card, which is a significant security concern.
Consequently, Turkey is concerned about the possibility of a power vacuum in Syria and desires the establishment of a political opposition-led government. Ankara views this as one of the solutions to a number of situations that it perceives to be a threat to its security and stability, such as the Syrian Kurds’ propensity to opt for federalism or complete secession from Syria, or at the very least, the PKK’s resumption of attacks inside Turkey, which will have a negative impact on Turkey’s stability at this time.
In the awake of the Syrian crisis, two new alliances have begun to form: the first is the camp of change, which is supported regionally by Turkey, the Gulf states, and Jordan, with the West’s European and American wings standing behind; the second is an ally of the Syrian regime, which is supported regionally by Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and also receives support from Russia and China.
During its military operations in northeastern Syria, Turkey enlisted members of the Syrian opposition, dubbing them the “Syrian National Army”.
Indications of Turkey-Syria Rapprochement
Following nearly a decade of estrangement and sharp aggravation in Turkish-Syrian relations in the wake of the outbreak of the Syrian internal war in 2011, there have been signs in recent years of a noticeable change in the Turkish positions towards Damascus. On 11 August 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that Turkey needs “to bring the opposition and regime together for reconciliation somehow. There will be no permanent peace otherwise”, advocating for a strong Syrian administration that would stop the territorial disintegration of the war-torn country. This marked a declared shift in Ankara’s stance towards Damascus.
In a similar vein, Erdogan’s top adviser downplayed any rapprochement with Syria while acknowledging the emergence of fresh realities that must be considered and coexisted with. This viewpoint might not, however, accurately reflect the new official Turkish stance on Syria.
A week later, on 19 August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in response to a query about the likelihood of holding negotiations with Damascus, that he “can never rule out dialogue and diplomacy with Syria,” adding, “political dialogue and diplomacy cannot be cut off between states.” Erdogan stated, “Turkey does not seek the removal of Syria’s Bashar Assad”, adding that advanced steps must be taken with Syria to sabotage plans in the region and that his country “doesn’t have eyes on the territory of Syria because the people of Syria are our brothers. The regime must be aware of this.”
Reuters reported in mid-September 2022, citing four sources in Damascus and Ankara, that Hakan Fidan and Ali Mamlouk, the respective heads of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization and the Syrian General Intelligence Agency, met in Damascus in late August. According to those sources, this meeting served as a precursor to future meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
As part of the broader Arab effort to resolve the Syrian crisis, normalizing relations between Turkey and Syria was on the horizon more than a decade after the start of the crisis. The 31st Arab League Summit, which was held in Algeria in November 2022, was supposed to make this effort a top priority, but nothing came of it, so the outcomes were disappointing.
The Syrian president stated in his initial response to the warming relations between his country and Turkey that “talks with foe Turkey should be based on the goals of ending the occupation of Syrian land.”
Iran in the Turkish-Syrian Equation
The Syrian uprising has sparked discord between Turkey and Iran, two sectarian states in the region, each of which has a strategic vision for its key sphere or area of influence that extends beyond their borders. This discord, however, cannot be considered sectarian polarization because Turkey’s motivation for supporting the popular protests in Syria was not sectarian. Rather, the sectarian polarization was between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the latter taking a supportive position for the popular protests, which was primarily motivated by the logic of preventing Iran’s expansion in the Gulf region and the Arab Levant.
Interpretations and analyses regarding Iran’s stance on the détente between Turkey and the Syrian regime suggested that Teheran was not happy with this course of action because it did not take part in sponsoring it.
In the beginning, many media outlets speculated that Iran would stand in the way of this reconciliation; however, some analysts believed that Iran is an active party in the Turkish-Syrian dialogue and would never stand against this move to end a portion of the crises facing the Syrian regime it sponsors.
Iran has taken proactive steps for a potential Turkish-Syrian reconciliation with greater rapprochement with Damascus as part of the prospective rapprochement path. In this regard, Ibrahim Raisi received an invitation to visit Damascus from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdollahian. Tehran is thought to be attempting to mediate between the Syrian and Turkish governments while carefully guarding its own interests.
Both Iran and Turkey have shared and competing interests. Iran, for instance, backs the Palestinian resistance movement against Israel, unlike Turkey. Despite being on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, they do find common ground on a number of issues, including ending the crisis in Syria and relieving the burdens placed on both of them. Ankara and Tehran have already taken part in the Astana peace negotiations between Damascus and the Syrian opposition in their capacity as guarantors of the agreements made, including the de-escalation agreement. In addition to the Syrian file, they frequently cross paths in the Kurdish file because they are both bombing Kurdish armed groups in northern Iraq. Turkey, which maintains a military presence in Iraq, continually attacks PKK strongholds, while Tehran targets armed Iranian Kurdish groups.
Middle East Online reports that Tehran is worried that the Turkish-Syrian reconciliation could one day rob it of its trade share, its share of the contracts for reconstruction, and its investments in the energy sector. Although Tehran has approved of the steps toward normalizing relations between Turkey and Syria, it is attempting to protect its influence and interests prior to this normalization.
Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, previously discussed Raisi’s trip to Damascus and confirmed in a press conference that Raisi’s visits to Turkey and Syria are being organized based on invitations from the leaders of those two countries.
Observers think Raisi’s potential trip to Damascus may be motivated by Iranian worries about the direction of Turkish-Syrian political relations, particularly in light of Russian pressure on Damascus that goes against Iranian interests.
Some do not completely rule out the possibility that Raisi’s trip was prompted by Iranian worries about regional and global initiatives that might restrict Iranian influence in southern Syria, particularly in light of the US administration’s recent signing of a project to combat the Syrian regime as a source of drugs.
Iran and Turkey are also making arrangements for a potential new scenario that could emerge in the wake of the Turkish-Syrian reconciliation, with the potential for the two sides to reach an agreement to end years of hostility and estrangement. Both countries are also working to protect their geopolitical and economic interests in the Syrian arena in the event that Ankara and Damascus reconcile with the backing of Russia.
Israel in the Turkish-Syrian Equation
Syria came out on the losing end of the Russian and Israeli relationship calculations, as the Israeli armed forces have been able to attack the positions of the Syrian army and its allies with the assurance of prior coordination with Moscow to lessen the number of casualties, while the Syrian army and its allies have refused to retaliate in kind. As a result, Syria lost its ability to defend itself against Israeli violations.
Russian policy may be based on different presumptions than Syria’s deterrence needs and requirements. The foundations of Russian policy are based on a broad vision for the entirety of Western Asia, and Moscow approaches the Syrian crisis as one component of a larger framework that spans from Central Asia, through Iran and Turkey, to the Gulf States and the Red Sea, and to northern Africa. For Russia, the field scene in Syria is meant to have some relevance to the state of the world today.
Despite all of the negative effects of Israel’s presence on Russia’s general policies, especially after the indirect Israeli intervention in the Ukrainian conflict became clear, it is too early to predict a shift in Russia’s policies toward Israel, particularly in regards to Syria, even if the nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran is revived.
After all, the factors that governed Russia’s position toward Israel still persist, and Moscow cannot abandon its attempts to reconcile the contradictions as long as the pro-Israel Jewish economic liberal current plays the primary economic role in Russia, in light of the Ukraine war and the resulting economic sanctions, which prompts the postponement of consideration of the Israeli-Syrian relationship until the end of the war in Ukraine, the repercussions of which will last for years.
In conclusion, Iran will continue to play a role in Syria’s decision to rapprochement with Turkey, despite the fact that it currently appears preoccupied with repressing domestic unrest. Iran works to fortify Damascus’ position and obstructs any Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory. The Iranian-Turkish talks added Iran to the equation after Turkey failed to overthrow the Syrian regime that Russia and Iran had supported throughout the conflict’s duration.
Despite claims that Russia and Iran are blocking a decision for Syria, the Syrian regime still has sway over the country’s rapprochement decisions. This is what drove Ankara to forge a direct path to reconciliation with the Syrian president.
Turkey appears to be rushing toward reconciliation because of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, which will take place in the middle of this year, as well as the US and European rejection of this rapprochement.
With Iran’s return to the nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions on Iran, Moscow’s policy towards Israel may change, putting it in a better position to dissuade Israel.