In mid-December, Turkish President R.T. Erdoğan, returning from a trip to Turkmenistan, sent a clear signal that the Syrian conflict could be resolved within the Syria-Turkey-Russia trio. For this, the Turkish leader suggested, representatives of the intelligence organizations of the three countries and the defense ministers should meet first, and then the foreign ministers. The three leaders will then be able to meet to resolve the Syrian crisis, the refugee issue and work out joint efforts against terrorist organizations.
Thanks to Russia’s mediation, the first ministerial contact between Turkey and Syria after 11 years of political spat took place in Moscow on December 28. Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar met with Syrian Minister of Defense Ali Mahmoud Abbas in the presence of Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. The intelligence chiefs of the three countries, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, Syrian military intelligence chief Rafik Shahadah and Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Sergei Naryshkin, met in parallel.
Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar said one of the most pressing issues discussed at the meeting was the fight against terrorism. He stressed that Turkey respects the territorial integrity and sovereign rights of Syria and Iraq and that Ankara’s only objective in the border areas with these countries is to fight terrorism: “We seek to neutralize members of terrorist organizations such as the YPG (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is banned in Turkey) and ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation)”. The minister also assured that through its actions Turkey aims to ensure the security of the country, its people and its borders, and to prevent a resumption of uncontrolled spontaneous migration flow from Syria to Turkey.
Regarding Ankara’s plans for Syria, the head of the Turkish Ministry of Defense pointed out that there was no intention to target the Syrian brothers living in Turkey and Syria, nor was there any intention to commit actions that would create difficulties for them. The Turkish military stressed after the meeting that “it took place in a constructive atmosphere and an agreement was reached to continue meetings in a trilateral format in order to ensure and maintain stability in Syria and the region as a whole”. Similar positive assessments of the trilateral meeting were voiced in Damascus.
Furthermore, the day after the trilateral meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu pointed out that, despite the importance of the meeting between the heads of Russia, Turkey and Syria, which was previously mentioned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it will take place, not in January 2023, but later. Before the meeting, according to Turkey, the defense and foreign ministers, as well as the heads of national intelligence services of all the countries, should work on a roadmap for a resolution in Syria.
Assessing Turkey’s actions in the region, President Erdoğan stressed that Ankara had carried out a record number of operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2022. In 2023, there are plans to step up efforts to strengthen the buffer zone adjacent to the Turkish border and against the organization, the fight against which he explains the Turkish intervention in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the Turkish leader promised that Ankara would enter “a new phase of the fight” to destroy the military capabilities, economic resources and infrastructure of Kurdish militias related to the PKK.
Thus, while Turkey does not abandon its intention to carry out a ground operation against the PKK, it clearly wants to prepare the conditions for it first, with the clear understanding that agreements must first be reached with Russia, whose armed forces have been present in Syria since 2015 at the invitation of the official authorities of that country. Of course, in this aspect, Ankara would primarily like to avoid trouble from Russian air defense against its aircraft. Furthermore, the objectives of the Turkish ground operation clearly include, in addition to the territories already effectively occupied by Turkey’s proxies and its own army, the occupation of some additional areas in northern Syria. However, Russia is unlikely to take such a step unconditionally and has repeatedly dissuaded Erdoğan from launching a new phase of the ground operation, arguing in favor of securing the Turkish-Syrian border through the active involvement of the Syrian Arab Army, supported by Moscow.
Demonstrating his willingness to take this option, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said on January 2 that Turkey expects the US and Russia to fulfil their security commitments on the border with Syria. In particular, the provisions of a memorandum of understanding signed by Russia and Turkey in October 2019. In particular, one of its clauses provides for the deployment of Russian military police and Syrian border guards on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey to jointly patrol and assist in the withdrawal of Kurdish units and their weapons 30 kilometers from the Syrian-Turkish border.
At the same time, Kalın stressed the need for the United States also to fulfil its commitments to Turkey to fight terrorist groups on Syrian territory. He emphasized that “US attitudes towards terrorist organizations continue to influence relations between the two countries” and that Ankara “will not accept unilateral imposition of policy, no matter who it comes from”. This Ankara’s position is clearly due to the fact that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are based on the YPG self-defense units, control most of Syria’s Al-Hasakah and Raqqa provinces and some localities in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor provinces with the support of the US military. However, like Ankara, official Damascus does not recognize this autonomous administration in north-eastern Syria, nor does it recognize the illegal presence of the US military on Syrian territory.
Thus, against the backdrop of comfortable conditions for restarting the peace process in Syria, the trilateral meeting in Moscow was able to lay the foundation for a future resolution of the Syrian crisis. And Russian efforts in this direction will certainly be able to facilitate the search for a compromise. With elections scheduled for the coming spring in Turkey, Ankara clearly has no interest in delaying the process, raising hopes that one of the hot and highly dangerous armed conflicts could be eliminated in the near future.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”