The deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Syria, and Iran have agreed to meet in Moscow in April. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the quadripartite consultations should focus on one main topic: preparations for a ministerial meeting, which will be planned for a date no later than the upcoming weeks.
By taking this route, Russia hopes to eventually bring together the leaders of Syria and Turkey, ending the estrangement that has existed between the two countries since 2011, and starting the process of normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus.
Through diplomatic mediation, Russia seeks to resolve the hurdles between the two capitals in the most complicated hotbed of international conflict. The picture appears to be a little further removed from the reality of achieving a specific outcome, particularly given the prolonging of the crisis, the number of state and non-state actors involved, and the sheer number of banners and flags flying over the conflict.
For instance, one of the banners that retains its historical name is the International Coalition to combat the Islamic State (IS), which is the umbrella under which US forces are barricaded on Syrian soil, along with the symbolic participation of Western countries. In addition, non-state actors in Syria come in a wide variety, and even if we were to begin listing their names, levels of subordination, numbers of armed members, and so on, we would not come close to exhausting the category.
Russian mediation, which is presented as novel, recalls the Astana Format on Syria, in which Russia, Turkey, and Iran are guarantor states, and whose 19th round produced only rhetorical wiggle room and nothing new over the course of its previous rounds, which spanned the five-year duration of the crisis, except for some discussion about the sovereignty of the current regime over all lands and the integrity of the Syrian territories, as well as an affirmation—which remained the most crucial—of continued involvement in seizing control of Syria’s future without allowing others to cross the line into this hazy future.
Politics is often referred to as “the art of the possible”, but it is not possible that the three countries would acknowledge or comprehend their shared responsibility for the Syrian crisis. There isn’t enough room to go into detail about how these countries contribute to the crisis both individually and collectively. Instead, we could cut this short by speculating as to what Russia has up its sleeve this time, especially given that the only novel development is allowing Syria to attend these conferences after 19 rounds of enforced disappearance and changing the banner’s name from “The Future of Syria” to something more in vogue in the region in order to become a Russian “mediation” that pushes for normalization between Syria and Turkey.
It is possible to provide explanations for the Russian algorithms and the degree to which the other three parties see themselves in Moscow’s plans, at least in terms of what might actually be a significant advancement on the elusive settlement path. Acting from a position of diplomatic isolation, Russia is attempting to give the impression that it has options on issues beyond the impasse in Ukraine.
At the same time, Moscow needs to keep exceptional relations with Ankara in order to manage the war in Ukraine and its consequences. After President Erdogan succeeded in forging a position that advances Russian interests, Ankara has grown in significance, and Moscow cannot in any way sever its ties with Turkey. Moscow’s new mediation proposal is taking steps in the direction of safeguarding and strengthening this relationship by putting its weight behind the Turkish president in the upcoming elections.
Normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus could provide Erdogan with answers to problems that might surface during the election campaign, and he now needs “horizons” that may succeed or either catch up with its forerunners. In any case, this would give Erdogan room to promote these achievements domestically and to present them to the Turkish electorate as being for the first time being discussed and formed at a table that also includes Russia, Iran, and Damascus, all of which are weights that support Erdogan with regard to important security, economic, and political issues.
The burden of Syrian refugees, the fortification of Turkey’s southern borders in exchange for a guarantee from Syria of a Turkish withdrawal that modifies the formula of the direct Turkish occupation of parts of northern and northwest Syria, as well as discussing the status of Turkish-backed armed groups that the Syrian government labels as “terrorist”, are among the pressing issues before the Turkish president.
The previous security talks between Turkish and Syrian officials failed to produce a consensus on the hot-button issues or even a foundation upon which to build a plan that would allow the move to the political level. This is precisely what Russia’s mediation proposal is meant to achieve at this time.
As soon as Moscow got wind of Ankara’s willingness to establish a timeline for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory, it began to consider the possibility of discussing corresponding guarantees that Damascus would give to Ankara concerning the security of the Turkish borders and the control of any potential waves of refugees into Turkish territory.
If Moscow can complete the formula quickly and guarantee that any potential roadblocks on both sides will be overcome, it will allow it to regain diplomatic clout. According to Russian sources, President Putin gave this mediation his full support when he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Moscow recently and seemed as if investing in the aid he has given Syria over the years. The Kremlin has made this point clear, stating prominently in the introduction to its statements about the visit that the meeting between the Russian president and his Syrian counterpart will undoubtedly have a positive effect on relations between Turkey and Syria.
Moscow is moving with its sights set on the success of Chinese mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, hoping to make progress on the same geopolitical weight that strongly supports it and demonstrates Moscow’s ability to support and provide solutions to its friends at this crucial moment.
On the opposite side, there are the United States and the Kurds in the same northern region, which is the subject of the discussion. Will they approve a deal of this nature, given that they both possess military might and have effective control over the ground and other stakeholders?
This article was originally published in Arabic on 1 April 2023 in Al-Ahram.