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Arabs Divided over Syrian-Turkish Normalization and its Conditions 

Arabs Divided over Syrian-Turkish Normalization and its Conditions 

Sunday, 8 January, 2023 - 08:15
In this photo released by the official Syrian state news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, speaks with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. (SANA via AP)

The United Arab Emirates – through senior officials - is seeking to join Russia in sponsoring the normalization of relations between Syria and Türkiye. The United States and Arab countries, meanwhile, are seeking to halt the normalization efforts, or at least, place conditions before they can be complete, signaling Arab division over the issue. 


Asharq Al-Awsat learned that Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad will meet with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in the presence of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. Efforts are underway to arrange for UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed’s participation at the meeting. 


The meeting will pave the way for a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The UAE has offered to host the summit. Should Moscow host the summit, then the UAE will send a high-level delegation to attend. Assad had visited the UAE in mid-2022 where he met with President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. 


The potential summit was discussed between Assad and Sheikh Abdullah in Damascus on Wednesday. This was the Emirati official’s second visit to the Syrian capital since November 2021. 


Assad described ties between Syria and the UAE as “historic”, adding that it was “natural that they return to the depth that they enjoyed for several decades, in service of their countries and peoples,” reported Syria’s state news agency SANA. 


The UAE FM stressed that his country “supports stability in Syria and its sovereignty over all its territories.” He underscored the UAE’s “commitment to and keenness on supporting efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that would restore security and stability and Syria’s unity.” 


Roadmap 


Asharq Al-Awsat also learned that Cavusoglu is planning on visiting Washington on January 16 and 17 to brief American officials on the progress in normalizing ties with Damascus and his meeting with Mikdad. 


He will also brief them on the “roadmap” that Russia is sponsoring on the security, military, economic and political levels and in line with the agreement reached between Russia, Syria and Türkiye’s defense ministers and intelligence chiefs in recent weeks. The roadmap also covers arrangements in northeastern Syria where US troops are deployed in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS. 


A western diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat that a senior American official will visit Ankara in the coming hours as part of efforts to mediate between Türkiye and the Kurds in northeastern Syria. 


Ankara has been demanding that Moscow and Washington commit to the implementation of the military agreements they signed in late 2019 and that call for the withdrawal of the backbone of the SDF, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), 30 kilometers deep from Syria’s northern border with Türkiye. The withdrawal also includes the regions of Manbij and Tal Rifaat and demands the removal of heavy weapons from the buffer zone. 


The SDF has said that it has fulfilled its commitments and that it will not pull out the Asayish police force and dismantle the local councils. Türkiye is insisting on the dismantling of all Kurdish civilian and military institutions in the area. 


The American mediation is aiming to reach middle ground between Ankara and the Kurds to avert a new Turkish incursion in Syria before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections set for mid-2023. 


Erdogan is banking on Moscow and Washington’s need for him due to the Russian war on Ukraine. Erdogan has shown more openness towards meeting Assad to agree on arrangements against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and YPG in northeastern Syria and form safe zones for the return of Syrian refugees from Türkiye, which has taken in some 4 million of them. 


Another diplomat has said that Ankara was “uneasy” with the leaks that came out from Damascus in wake of the meeting between the Russia, Syrian and Turkish defense ministers in Moscow that allegedly included an agreement for Türkiye to withdraw from northern Syria. 


Another diplomat revealed, however, that Damascus and Ankara view the PKK as a common threat and they will work against any separatist agenda because it would pose an existential danger to both countries. Syria and Türkiye also agreed to work on reopening the Aleppo-Latakia highway. 


Western coordination 


Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to Damascus took place in wake of American official statements that expressed opposition to normalization with Assad. The statements were issued in wake of the Syrian-Turkish meetings. 


A diplomat revealed that the US State Department was the only party among western countries to release a statement to voice opposition to the normalization. It is working with Paris, Berlin and London to issue a clear joint position that rejects normalization. 


Contacts are underway to hold a meeting between representatives of the US, France, Germany and Britain with United Nations envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, in Geneva on January 23 ahead of his visit to Damascus to meet Mikdad.  


The meeting will aim to underscore the stance on normalization and support offering funding to electricity and early recovery projects, in line with the relevant UN Security Council resolution that will be up for extension on January 10. Here, the UAE has offered to contribute in financing economic and electricity projects in Syria within the margin allowed by US sanctions and the Ceasar Act. 


Jordan was notably the first party to open higher levels of communication with Damascus. It backed the signing of a truce that covered southern Syria and the deal on easing the escalation between Russia and the US in mid-2018. Amman is now leading Arab efforts to reach a “joint Arab position that sets the Arab conditions in exchange for the normalization, for which a price will be extracted.” 


A western official said Jordan has noted that the smuggling of Captagon, weapons and ammunition across its border from Syria increased after normalization efforts kicked off. Moreover, Iran’s presence in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border, has not decreased. ISIS has also increased its activity there. 


Demands are therefore being made to coordinate efforts to pressure Damascus to offer political and geopolitical steps in the coming phase. 


Meanwhile, an Arab source revealed that a Palestinian Hamas delegation, including the movement’s leader in the Gaza Strip Khalil al-Hayya and leading member Osama Abou Hamdan, will visit Damascus next week. This will mark the first such visit since the Hamas leadership quit Damascus a decade ago. 


The same officials were part of a Palestinian delegation that had met Assad in October. Sources said Hayya and Abou Hamdan’s visit aims to discuss Hamas’ return to Syria and arrange for visits by more leading members to Damascus in the future. 


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