Omer Onhon

Obstacles Hindering the Turkish-Syrian Summit

Russia is occupied with the war in Ukraine, but it also continues its engagement in Syria because of its importance in the geo-strategic stage.

Russia, having special relations, in its own way, with both Türkiye and Syria, has long wanted to restore relations between them. A few months ago, it seized a window of opportunity and initiated a process.

The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs at a press conference with his Iranian counterpart a couple of weeks ago in Ankara said that there would be a meeting of representatives of Russia, Iran, Türkiye and Syria at the level of deputy ministers on March 16 in Moscow. He said this meeting was to prepare for a possible meeting of foreign ministers.

The final phase of this process is supposed to be the meeting between presidents or as party loyalists like to call them, the leaders.

The Russian initiated process had started with meetings between intelligence officials and was followed last December by a meeting between Defense Ministers.

At the outset of the process, the Assad side stated that withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria and stopping support to opposition groups should be the starting point of a rapprochement between the two countries.

Turkish Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense responded that Turkish forces were there only to prevent threats emanating from border areas and would not remain when these threats were eliminated.

The Turkish side may have thought that these statements have comforted Damascus and that they are now content with building on this approach. Apparently, it was not the case.

The evening before the quadrilateral meeting of diplomats, Assad, was in Moscow for an official visit. He met with President Vladimir Putin and rapprochement with Türkiye was also on their agenda.

On that evening Assad said in an interview with Sputnik that he would meet Tukrish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan only if "Türkiye is ready, clearly and without any ambiguity, to completely withdraw from Syrian territory, stop supporting terrorism and restore the situation to what it was before the start of the war in Syria".

The next day, it was announced that the meeting, which was supposed to be held that day, had been postponed for "technical reasons". No new date was announced.

Assad would not instruct the Syrian representative not to attend the meeting in a way which would embarrass his Russian host, to whom he owes almost everything. I hardly think that the decision to postpone the meeting would have been possible without Russia playing along.

In any event, what happened in Moscow cannot be good news for Erdogan, whose Syria policy has been criticized even among his own ranks.

Erdogan wants something tangible with Assad before the critical elections on May 14 because he needs to show that despite all that has happened, he can still put things right and he is the one who can solve the problem.

What drives Assad’s policy against Erdogan?

Relations between Erdogan and Assad have been strained to the level of hostility since 2011. Realpolitik may bring them together around a table, but the mutual feeling of distrust and dislike is unlikely to go away soon, if ever.

Elections in Türkiye are to be held in a couple of months and issues with roots in Syria, especially return of Syrian refugees and security matters, will have an impact. Assad is unlikely to want to make an election gift to Erdogan by meeting him or reaching an agreement.

The Turkish opposition has a good chance of winning against Erdogan. Asad could prefer to wait to negotiate with them, as they have always been critical of Erdogan’s Syria policy.

Assad, who has been isolated in the international community for many years, is trying to make a comeback and has covered some ground in that regard, especially within the Arab world.

Assad is not the favorite official of many Arab leaders. But bitter memories of the failure of the state as in the case of Iraq, Iran’s ambitions in the region and the risk of leaving Syria entirely in the hands of Iran and the developments in Syria have in a way compelled many Arab countries to start building bridges with Assad.

More than any other country, Assad is focused on the Arab world. Softening a few remaining Arab countries with negative attitudes and taking back Syria’s seat in the Arab League would be a major achievement for him.

An important feature of the postponed meeting in Moscow was that Iran had also joined in and this would have been the first quadrilateral meeting. Initially, for various reasons, Russia had not involved Iran in this process, but it found (or pushed) its way in. I am not sure if Russia and Türkiye are really happy with Iran joining in, but not accepting it would probably have implications.

The US is the other major part of the Syrian complex. There are around 1,000 American soldiers in Syria, who continue to work with their local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The House of Representatives recently voted against a bill which proposed withdrawing US forces from Syria.

The Americans are against holding meetings and establishing ties with Assad. The US has stated that UNSC resolution 2254 is the way forward to reach a political solution and a durable peace. True, but neither the US nor the countries which think alike, are not doing anything meaningful in this direction. On the contrary, many parties are convinced that their presence and policies make things even worse.

In that regard, for example, both Türkiye and Syria are concerned that US support to People's Protection Units (YPD) and SDF encourages separatism and endangers Syria’s territorial integrity.

The postponement of the meeting in Moscow does not necessarily mean the end of the process. We can expect Russia to pursue the matter.

But as things stand, the election pressure in Türkiye and Assad’s "I won the war and I have the upper hand" attitude, which is in many ways misguided and misleading, will continue as major markers. Under these circumstances, one may hardly expect a major, meaningful breakthrough soon.