Syria and Turkey begin talks towards restoring ties

Deputy foreign ministers from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia meet in Moscow to push forward with reconciliation effort

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a meeting was planned between the foreign ministers of Iran, Syria, Turkey and Russia. AFP
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Talks to restore ties between Turkey and Syria began on Monday in Russia, with the presence of Iranian officials, in a bid to push forward with reconciliation efforts, but experts predict this is merely the start of a lengthy process.

“The process of engagement with Syria has started under the hosting and facilitations of Russia, later Iran joined the process … a quadripartite meeting on the level of deputy foreign ministers will be held on April 3-4 in Moscow,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at the Turkevi Centre in New York.

The deputy foreign ministers' meeting is the prelude to planned talks between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia.

Russia, which along with Iran has supported Syria's President Bashar Al Assad in the civil war that started in 2011, has been pushing for reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara for months.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to visit Turkey on Thursday for talks on Syria, Libya and other regional issues, Mr Cavusoglu said.

The Turkish Foreign Minister said his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian had requested to join the talks between Turkey, Syria and Russia, and Ankara agreed.

“Astana is the only surviving format [to address] Syria anyway,” Mr Cavusoglu told a joint news conference with Mr Amirabdollahian last month, referring to peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital.

“Now we are planning a meeting between the four foreign ministers.”

Moscow has been pushing for meetings between Syria and Turkey's foreign ministers and eventually their presidents.

In December, it hosted talks between the two countries' defence ministers.

Turkey and Syria each accuse the other of supporting terrorists that threaten cross-border security.

Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled that he was ready to meet his Syrian counterpart in a trilateral summit with Russia. Russia has been Mr Al Assad's biggest backer during the 12-year civil war.

The meeting in Moscow holds a symbolic importance that heralds a new era between Turkey and Syria because for a long time, there was no engagement, Sinan Ulgen, director of Istanbul's Edam think tank and a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told The National.

“The agenda will essentially be to clarify the conditions for future negotiations and to ultimately proceed with normalisation between the two,” he said.

As to Moscow's involvement, Mr Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat, said that it shows that Russia “is an influential player with regards to the politics of Syria, given that it was Russia who facilitated this meeting”.

He said the talks were the first step in what is “likely going to be a difficult and long-term challenge of the Turkey-Syria dialogue”.

Turkey is participating partially at the urging of Moscow, which wants Ankara to address its concerns and priorities in Syria through engagement with the Assad regime, said Galip Dalay, a Turkey analyst at Chatham House.

“This is a win for Russia; it wants to play a role by facilitating talks between Syria and Turkey,” Mr Dalay told The National.

Turkey-Syria sticking points

Trust between the two sides is low and both are likely to table several demands. One of the major points of contention is Turkey's military presence in Syria.

Damascus has been urging Ankara to withdraw from its territory but it is unlikely to do so for security reasons, Mr Dalay said.

Mr Ulgen said Ankara would want “reassurance from the Syrian side that if it withdraws from these zones it will not be used against the security interest of Turkey”.

These security guarantees will have to be negotiated during the talks.

Turkey's support for Syrian opposition groups has also created friction. For years. Ankara has backed the opposition's calls for regime change and an overhaul of the political system in Syria.

“The support of these groups is an issue which continues till this day,” Mr Ulgen said.

The safe return of Syrian refugees is another sticking point.

Turkey, which hosts an estimated four million Syrian refugees, wants assurances from Mr Al Assad regarding their return.

“We are heading towards Turkish elections and the refugee question overall is an item in Turkish polls. The government hopes that it can send back at least a fraction of the refugees in Turkey through these talks,” Mr Dalay said.

He said that, for Mr Erdogan's government, it “gives the image of taking this issue seriously as demanded by the popular level”.

Updated: April 03, 2023, 3:08 PM