Syria, Türkiye Normalization Takes Shape along Aleppo-Latakia Highway

Children are seen at a refugee camp in Syria's Idlib on January 14. (EPA)
Children are seen at a refugee camp in Syria's Idlib on January 14. (EPA)
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Syria, Türkiye Normalization Takes Shape along Aleppo-Latakia Highway

Children are seen at a refugee camp in Syria's Idlib on January 14. (EPA)
Children are seen at a refugee camp in Syria's Idlib on January 14. (EPA)

Open and secret political and security contacts have expanded in recent days to choose the best path to normalize relations with Damascus.

Syria and Türkiye have held security meetings in the Latakia countryside with the aim of reopening the Aleppo-Latakia highway. A Kurdish delegation from Qamishli even visited the Syrian capital to feel out the limits of the Syrian-Turkish cooperation against them.

The United States has also been mediating between Ankara and the Kurds to deter a new Turkish incursion east of the Euphrates River. Iran, meanwhile, is trying to become involved in the Russian mediation between Damascus and Ankara.

Russia

The latest in the Russian efforts is President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on paving the way for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad to meet before Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in May.

Syria’s national security bureau chief Ali Mamlouk and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan had already held talks. The Syrian, Turkish and Russian defense ministers also met. A meeting between the three countries’ foreign ministers was set to be held in the Russian capital, Moscow.

Moscow sought for the meeting to be held on January 11, but Ankara received “American advice” that it should not agree to attend before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Washington on January 18.

Damascus, for its part, was not willing to hold the meeting for the sake of holding it, but wanted clear outcomes to come of it.

This led to a series of additional contacts. Russia’s presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev visited Damascus for talks with Assad. Russia reiterated its desire to arrange a meeting between Assad and Erdogan, but the former tied such a meeting to Türkiye’s withdrawal from northern Syria or at least setting a timetable for the pullout.

Clearly, Damascus wants to claim some form of “symbolic achievement” before having Assad and Erdogan meet.

Ankara, for its part, informed mediators that its army will not withdraw from Syria “under any circumstance and even if the Americans pull out.” Such a position stands in contrast to its previous announcements when it used to tie it withdrawal to the political solution and the pullout of all foreign forces that entered Syria after 2011.

At this impasse, attention was shifted to the reopening of the Aleppo-Latakia highway, or M4. The route was included in de-escalation agreements reached between Moscow and Ankara over Aleppo. Talks over the highway included deploying Russian and Turkish patrols and establishing a safe zone on either side of it.

After three years, the patrols have since come to a halt and efforts to reopen the highway have stalled. Moscow is no longer exerting pressure on Ankara because it needs it in several other issues, including the war in Ukraine.

Syrian-Turkish security meetings have been held recently in Latakia’s Kasab area to reopen the highway. Türkiye has shown some flexibility in reopening it on condition that it maintain its control over it, while Syria maintains its sovereignty.

Kurdish concern

As Syria and Türkiye inch closer to normalizing their relations, Damascus again turned to the Kurds. Each side wants to feel out the respective party’s stance on the normalization. Indeed, a Kurdish delegation visited Damascus just days ago.

Russia had previously sponsored negotiations and delegations were formed, but the talks then came to a halt. Damascus now wants to feel out where the Kurds, who are allied to the US, stand, while the Kurds want to know the limits of the normalization between Damascus and Ankara.

The meetings were aimed at studying the implementation of the understanding that was signed between the two parties in wake of the sudden American troop withdrawal approved by former US President Donald Trump in late 2019. The agreement included the deployment of Syrian forces east of the Euphrates.

The Kurds are now eager to cooperate with Damascus if it means preventing a new Turkish offensive against them, while Damascus is more than ready to deal with them in their position of weakness.

American mediation

It is no secret that relations between Deputy Assistant to the US President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Ankara are very bad. But a Gulf state recently hosted a secret meeting between the US official and Türkiye’s Fidan with aim of clearing the air.

What can be done to avert a new Turkish incursion east of the Euphrates? What can be done to meet some Turkish demands? What can be done to avert a catastrophe in the counter-terrorism efforts that are being carried out by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition that is partnered with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)?

In wake of the secret meeting, US State Department Special Envoy to Syria Nicholas Granger carried out a series of secret visits to Ankara and Qamishli. Talks focused on the withdrawal of the Kurdish police, Asayish, 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory away from the Turkish border or that they lay down their arms. They also tackled the re-formation of a local councils and return of Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkish FM Cavusoglu was keen on meeting United Nations envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen ahead of his trip to Washington to imply that he was interested in reaching a political solution in Syria.

At any rate, a breakthrough, if reached, has yet to be declared.

Türkiye has repeatedly said it had reached the limit of its patience and that it would take unilateral measures. The US has warned against any measure that would impact the SDF and the war on terror.

Iranian annoyance

Amid all these developments, Iran has expressed its annoyance with the Russian mediation between Damascus and Ankara for a number of reasons.

First, the mediation took place behind its back. In fact, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian complained of this in Damascus just days ago, revealing that he had learned of the Syrian-Turkish meetings through the media.

Second, Tehran believes that any progress in Syrian-Turkish ties may take place at the expense of Iran’s military and non-military role in Syria.

Third, the United Arab Emirates has joined efforts in Syria and offered to host or take part in the Syrian-Turkish-Russian meetings, including the upcoming trilateral summit.

Add to the above obstacles that led to the postponement of a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Damascus that was planned for late 2022.

Meanwhile, Damascus, which wants to stand on equal footing with its allies Moscow and Tehran, has expressed its disappointment with the continued Iranian arms shipments to Damascus International Airport that has been the target of a number of Israeli strikes.

It is also upset with the delay in the arrival of three Iranian oil shipments and with draft agreements that include “sovereign concessions” related to the economy and granting Iranians in Syria the same privileges as the Syrians themselves.

These issues were discussed during Abdollahian’s visit to Damascus and some breakthroughs were reached. Tehran pledged to send oil shipments and Damascus pledged to coordinate its normalization with Ankara with Iran. Preparations to arrange for Raisi’s visit to Damascus have resumed. Amid all this, pro-Iran factions shelled the positions of “America’s allies” in the region east of the Euphrates.

The outcomes of the above-mentioned secret and open meetings will emerge on the Aleppo-Latakia highway, the battlefields in northern and eastern Syria and in air raids. Meanwhile, the Syrian people, huddled in their homes and camps, are hoping for an improvement in their living and economic conditions.



Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
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Biden's Withdrawal Injects Uncertainty Into Wars, Trade Disputes and Other Foreign Policy Challenges

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Joe Biden's withdrawal from the US presidential race injects greater uncertainty into the world at a time when Western leaders are grappling with wars in Ukraine and Gaza, a more assertive China in Asia and the rise of the far-right in Europe.
During a five-decade career in politics, Biden developed extensive personal relationships with multiple foreign leaders that none of the potential replacements on the Democratic ticket can match. After his announcement, messages of support and gratitude for his years of service poured in from near and far, said The Associated Press.
The scope of foreign policy challenges facing the next US president makes clear how consequential what happens in Washington is for the rest of the planet. Here's a look at some of them.
ISRAEL With Vice President Kamala Harris being eyed as a potential replacement for Biden, Israelis on Sunday scrambled to understand what her candidacy would mean for their country as it confronts increasing global isolation over its military campaign against Hamas.
Israel’s left-wing Haaretz daily newspaper ran a story scrutinizing Harris’ record of support for Israel, pointing to her reputation as Biden’s “bad cop" who has vocally admonished Israel for its offensive in Gaza. In recent months, she has gone further than Biden in calling for a cease-fire, denouncing Israel's invasion of Rafah and expressing horror over the civilian death toll in Gaza.
“With Biden leaving, Israel has lost perhaps the last Zionist president,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “A new Democratic candidate will upend the dynamic.”
Biden's staunch defense of Israel since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack has its roots in his half-century of support for the country as a senator, vice president, then president. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant thanked Biden for his “unwavering support of Israel over the years.”
“Your steadfast backing, especially during the war, has been invaluable,” Gallant wrote on X.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog praised Biden as a “symbol of the unbreakable bond between our two peoples" and a “true ally of the Jewish people.” There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ally of former President Donald Trump whose history of cordial relations with Biden has come under strain during the Israel-Hamas war.
UKRAINE Any Democratic candidate would likely continue Biden’s legacy of staunch military support for Ukraine. But frustration with the Biden administration has grown in Ukraine and Europe over the slow pace of US aid and restrictions on the use of Western weapons.
“Most Europeans realize that Ukraine is increasingly going to be their burden,” said Sudha David-Wilp, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a research institute. “Everyone is trying to get ready for all the possible outcomes.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on X that he respected the “tough but strong decision” by Biden to drop out of the campaign, and he thanked Biden for his help “in preventing (Russian President Vladimir) Putin from occupying our country.”
Trump has promised to end Russia's war on Ukraine in one day if he is elected — a prospect that has raised fears in Ukraine that Russia might be allowed to keep the territory it occupies.
Trump's vice presidential pick, Ohio Sen. JD Vance, is among Congress’ most vocal opponents of US aid for Ukraine and has further raised the stakes for Kyiv.
Russia, meanwhile, dismissed the importance of the race, insisting that no matter what happened, Moscow would press on in Ukraine.
“We need to pay attention,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by a pro-Russian tabloid. “We need to watch what will happen and do our own thing."
CHINA In recent months, both Biden and Trump have tried to show voters who can best stand up to Beijing’s growing military strength and belligerence and protect US businesses and workers from low-priced Chinese imports. Biden has hiked tariffs on electric vehicles from China, and Trump has promised to implement tariffs of 60% on all Chinese products.
Trump’s “America First” doctrine exacerbated tensions with Beijing. But disputes with the geopolitical rival and economic colossus over wars, trade, technology and security continued into Biden's term.
China's official reaction to the US presidential race has been careful. The official Xinhua news agency treated the story of Biden’s decision as relatively minor. The editor of the party-run Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, downplayed the impact of Biden's withdrawal.
“Whoever becomes the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party may be the same," he wrote on X. “Voters are divided into two groups, Trump voters and Trump haters.”
IRAN With Iran's proxies across the Middle East increasingly entangled in the Israel-Hamas war, the US confronts a region in disarray.
Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis struck Tel Aviv for the first time last week, prompting retaliatory Israeli strikes inside war-torn Yemen. Simmering tensions and cross-border attacks between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group and the Israeli military have raised fears of an all-out regional conflagration.
Hamas, which also receives support from Iran, continues to fight Israel even nine months into a war that has killed 38,000 Palestinians and displaced over 80% of Gaza's population.
The US and its allies have accused Iran of expanding its nuclear program and enriching uranium to an unprecedented 60% level, near-weapons-grade levels.
After then-President Trump in 2018 withdrew from Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Biden said he wanted to reverse his predecessor's hawkish anti-Iran stance. But the Biden administration has maintained severe economic sanctions against Iran and overseen failed attempts to renegotiate the agreement.
The sudden death of Ebrahim Raisi — the supreme leader's hard-line protege — in a helicopter crash vaulted a new reformist to the presidency in Iran, generating new opportunities and risks. Masoud Pezeshkian has said he wants to help Iran open up to the world but has maintained a defiant tone against the US.
EUROPE AND NATO Many Europeans were happy to see Trump go after his years of disparaging the European Union and undermining NATO. Trump's seemingly dismissive attitude toward European allies in last month's presidential debate did nothing to assuage those concerns.
Biden, on the other hand, has supported close American relations with bloc leaders.
That closeness was on stark display after Biden's decision to bow out of the race. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called his choice “probably the most difficult one in your life.” The newly installed British prime minister, Keir Starmer, said he respected Biden’s “decision based on what he believes is in the best interests of the American people.”
There was also an outpouring of affection from Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris, who called Biden a “proud American with an Irish soul."
The question of whether NATO can maintain its momentum in supporting Ukraine and checking the ambitions of other authoritarian states hangs in the balance of this presidential election, analysts say.
“They don't want to see Donald Trump as president. So there's quite a bit of relief but also quite a bit of nervousness" about Biden's decision to drop out, said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Like many in the United States, but perhaps more so, they are really quite confused.”
MEXICO The close relationship between Mexico and the US has been marked in recent years by disagreements over trade, energy and climate change. Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in 2018, both countries have found common ground on the issue of migration – with Mexico making it more difficult for migrants to cross its country to the US border and the US not pressing on other issues.
The López Obrador administration kept that policy while Trump was president and continued it into Biden's term.
On Friday, Mexico’s president called Trump “a friend” and said he would write to him to warn him against pledging to close the border or blaming migrants for bringing drugs into the United States.
“I am going to prove to him that migrants don’t carry drugs to the United States,” he said, adding that “closing the border won’t solve anything, and anyway, it can’t be done.”