The security talks led by the Director of the Syrian National Security Office, Major General Ali Mamlouk, and the Director of Turkish Intelligence, Hakan Fidan, in Moscow highlighted a continuous gap between the two parties on the one hand, and the increasing Russian desire to find a solution to it.
Damascus demands a “timetable” for withdrawal, especially since Türkiye controls Syrian areas that are twice the size of Lebanon. Ankara, for its part, adheres to “safe areas” in northern Syria, while Russia seeks to bridge the gap based on the interests of the two sides, namely “coordination against the Kurds and separatist movements.”
Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad signed a decree appointing Deputy Foreign Minister Bashar al-Jaafari ambassador to Moscow. Russian authorities decided to expedite diplomatic approval, which opens the door to strengthening Russian mediation. It also allows Deputy Minister Ayman Susan to assume his position, or Imad Mustafa to return to the post of deputy minister to Faisal Al-Miqdad.
Security tours and diplomatic contacts
Following several secret security meetings at different levels in the countryside of Latakia, Tehran and Moscow, and the continuation of the work of the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul, Moscow sponsored in early 2020 a public meeting between Mamlouk and Fidan, which was announced by the two countries’ official news agencies.
The two sides reiterated their positions, as Mamlouk demanded that Ankara abide by the 2018 Sochi agreements between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Vladimir Putin, in addition to opening the Aleppo-Latakia road, and completing withdrawals from Syrian territory. On the other hand, Fidan demanded cooperation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the search for a political settlement.
Practically speaking, the meeting did not result in a major breakthrough. As if Assad and Erdogan just wanted to give the impression that they were not against Putin’s mediation. Since then, both the Syrian and Turkish sides have followed their own tracks and priorities.
The Russian war in Ukraine stirred the Syrian stalemate. Erdogan, better positioned as he was needed by Moscow and Washington, wanted to launch a new military operation in northern Syria. Indeed, he prepared his army and loyal factions, and set the date for the incursion at the end of July. The Turkish president sought to coordinate with the Iranian spiritual guide, Ali Khamenei, and the Russian president during the Tehran summit on July 19.
According to sources who attended the summit, the Russian and Iranian sides clearly told Erdogan that they were against the military operation, and that they preferred the Turkish leader to talk with Assad and to focus on “unifying ranks against the US-backed separatist movements in northeastern Syria.”
Accordingly, Putin and Khamenei considered that they “succeeded in persuading Erdogan to deal with Assad” and that the tripartite summit was “a sign of Assad’s victory.”
Mamlouk-Fidan... Two friends?
Putin succeeded in persuading Assad and Erdogan to dispatch Mamlouk and Fidan, who know each other well, to Moscow, which hosted a round of secret talks between them in July, partly led by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
According to Russian, Western and Arab sources, Mamlouk and Fidan presented a long list of extreme demands.
What about the demands?
The Syrian demands included: respecting Syrian sovereignty, setting a timetable for the Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory, halting support for separatist groups, and returning Idlib, which has been under the control of Turkish-backed factions since 2015. Moreover, the Syrian side called for restoring control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Türkiye and Idlib, and opening the M4 road that extends from the borders of the Mediterranean in the west, to Iraq in the east, and which is controlled by Syrian, Turkish and Kurdish forces.
Syria also demanded help in countering western sanctions (as Türkiye does with sanctions against Russia), in addition to its return to the Arab League, assistance in reconstruction efforts and the recovery of natural resources, including oil, gas and agriculture east of the Euphrates.
As for Türkiye, which considers that Damascus is incapable of fighting the Kurds alone, its demands include: serious action against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian wing - the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), cooperation between the security services in the two countries, and negotiations with the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition to reach a political settlement. It also called for the return of Syrian refugees, the establishment of safe zones in Aleppo and other areas in northern Syria at a depth of 30 km, and assistance and facilitation of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
Moscow continues to oppose a meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva. Despite the visit of the UN envoy Geir Pedersen to Russia, information indicate that the committee would not convene in the coming months. One of the options is to hold the talks in Astana, noting that Erdogan had suggested in Tehran that it be organized in a city that is home to a UN headquarters.
Meanwhile, the Western representatives will organize a coordination meeting onTuesday in Geneva, at the request of US Envoy Ethan Goldrich, to “coordinate Arab and Western positions opposing Arab normalization with Damascus, and to confirm that Geneva is a natural place for the work of the Constitutional Committee.”
An Iranian incursion...and Russian solutions
Iran tried to enter the security mediation line between Syria and Türkiye – a move that did not please some parties in Damascus and Moscow. But Russia maintained its mediation, reiterating this stance during Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s talks with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Miqdad. The latter expressed doubts about Fidan’s ability to influence Erdogan.
First, Russia believes that it succeeded in stopping Türkiye’s plans to launch a military operation, and in changing the Turkish and Syrian discourse. Moscow is confident that the Turkish withdrawal “will happen, but it is not an urgent matter”, and that the current meeting point is “working against the Kurds and separatist movements.”
An official said: “If the situation remains the same for two or three years, it will be difficult for Syria to regain its unity.”
The Russian mediator is currently working on an “action plan” based on the two sides’ demands and common points. The priorities include providing security guarantees to Ankara and operational arrangements for Damascus in Idlib and the Aleppo-Latakia road.
One of the solutions is for the Syrian and Turkish sides to work on copying a new draft of the 1998 Adana Agreement, which established security cooperation between them against the PKK.
Another mediation with Washington
Parallel to Moscow’s mediation between Ankara and Damascus, another mediation is led by Lebanese Intelligence chief Abbas Ibrahim and others between Damascus and Washington regarding the fate of US Journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria ten years ago.
Ibrahim had previously intervened during President Donald Trump’s administration, and also under Joe Biden. However, Damascus’ response did not change: There will be no negotiation over Tice before the US withdrawal, the dismantling of the Al-Tanf base, and the lifting of sanctions. The only new development is Syria’s decision to publicly announce its demands, stating that it had not detained Tice, without specifying whether the journalist was alive or not.
In the summer of 2019, Damascus asked the visiting US envoys for the American forces’ withdrawal, the dismantling of the Al-Tanf base, and the halting of support to the opposition, in addition to the lifting of sanctions, because it did not want to help Trump succeed in the elections. But Syrian authorities made sure to inform Moscow and Tehran of those negotiations.
Today, Damascus is keen to publicly inform Moscow and Tehran of its demands from America, because the Syrian priority is to please the two capitals and to search for common lines with Ankara, especially after the Western-American confrontation in Ukraine.
There are indications that the normalization process between Damascus and Ankara has started, and that Moscow is working on framing its phases, speed and content, whether through a quick transition to the political framework, or by staying within the security framework and searching for common realistic goals.