Statements made by the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Thursday, sparked a wave of anger among the Syrian opposition, after he considered that “it is necessary to achieve reconciliation between the opposition and the regime in Syria, in some way,” while revealing a “short meeting” he had gathered before Ten months with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Miqdad, in Belgrade.
Although the meeting with Miqdad was ten months ago (October 2021) on the sidelines of the “Non-Aligned Movement” meeting and “was not official”, it is considered the first diplomatic contact between Turkey and the Syrian regime, since 2011.
And what the Turkish minister said: “There will be no lasting peace in Syria without achieving reconciliation,” adding: “There must be a strong will to prevent the country’s division,” and that “the will that can control all of the country’s territory can only be established through unity.” “.
His speech was quickly reflected among the Syrian opposition, who, on Thursday evening, turned to organizing angry popular protests in cities and border areas, in the northern countryside of Aleppo and Idlib governorate.
While the protests continued, followed by calls to organize others after Friday prayers, which did happen, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a clarification response to Cavusoglu’s statements.
The response came within three tracks, as the Foreign Ministry said that “Turkey played a leading role in maintaining the ceasefire on the ground, forming the Constitutional Committee through the Astana and Geneva processes, and provided full support to the opposition and the negotiating committee in the political process.”
According to the Foreign Ministry, “Turkey, which provides temporary protection to millions of Syrians, continues to actively contribute to efforts to create appropriate conditions for the voluntary and safe return of refugees and to find a solution to the conflict, in accordance with the road map stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.”
“Abuse governed by variables”
The last meeting between Turkey and the Syrian regime at the level of foreign ministers was held in 2011, when the events of the Syrian revolution erupted during the visit of then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Damascus in August.
Davutoglu met with the late Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, as well as the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad. After the meeting, political contact between the two parties was cut off.
After 2011, Turkey provided strong political and military support to the Syrian opposition in order to overthrow the regime, and it remained on this path until Russia intervened militarily in 2015.
After 2015, while the aforementioned support remained in place and declared with the difference in the balance of power on the ground, the situation shifted to a new stage at the beginning of 2017, during the launch of the “Astana” process.
After this period, it seemed to notice that Turkey no longer saw the departure of al-Assad as an option, especially with the gradual change in international attitudes that also differed from those that followed in the first years of the revolution.
Turkey is considered one of the active countries in the Syrian file, politically through the “Astana” track, which has reached 18 tours and another one related to “Sochi”, and it hosts more than 4 million Syrian refugees.
Militarily, the active role of Turkey is evident based on the reality on the ground imposed by its forces and the Syrian factions that support it along the border, represented by the “Syrian National Army” alliance.
Over the past three years, the features of the Turkish vision regarding the Syrian file seemed to be limited to several goals, including the removal of any threat to its national security along the northern border of Syria, while talk has recently increased dramatically about the “refugee file” and their safe area.
Moreover, Ankara has repeatedly announced that it supports the “political process for Syria,” and that it also supports the outcomes of the Astana process, which had the greatest role in stabilizing the limits of military control, in its current form.
The position announced by the Turkish Foreign Minister not only provoked outrage and protests, but also resulted in a controversy, which was reflected in questions such as: Is what was presented an indication of the normalization of relations? Or is it a “feeling of the pulse” process?
At a time when locals and observers had conflicting opinions about the future relationship that Turkey and the regime might accept, the statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, on Friday, gave a message that “the Syrians misunderstood the issue.”
But what increased the controversy even more was that the proposal made by the Turkish Foreign Minister came within a remarkable context, and in conjunction with a series of press leaks published by Turkish media, during the past days.
And media outlets suggested that there would be a “beginning of the restoration of relations,” and some of them even expected, a few days ago, a phone call between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad.
Cavusoglu had denied the possibility of any phone call between Erdogan and Assad, stressing that “there are no diplomatic contacts at the moment”, and that the relationship is limited to “intelligence”, in which cooperation was recently cut off and resumed today.
The Turkish minister did not hide information that Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Erdogan at the recent Sochi summit to communicate with the Assad regime, in order to solve the security problems in northern Syria, but added that the Turkish president “preferred to stay on intelligence communication only.”
At the beginning of this month, there was a meeting between Erdogan and Putin in Sochi, in which the issue of “Ankara’s relationship with Damascus” was raised, and the issue was also discussed on the Turkish presidential plane returning to Ankara.
Two days after Erdogan’s remarks, Fatih Shukriji wrote on the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper: “Can the issue turn into the possibility that the talks between the two countries will rise to the intelligence level? If there is a serious result against terrorism, the contact will be very intense.” .
Two days later, journalist Hande Firat, who accompanied Erdogan during his recent visit to Sochi, said that “Russia proposed to Turkey a review of the Adana Agreement concluded with the Syrian regime since 1998.”
She added that “Turkey saw the Russian proposal as unrealistic at this stage.”
In addition, the journalist, Yilmaz Bilgin, published a report on the “Turkey newspaper”, in which he sparked a great deal of controversy, as he claimed that “a Gulf country and an African country are trying to arrange contact between Erdogan and Assad.”
The journalist added that the meeting between Erdogan and al-Assad, which Ankara describes as “too early,” could take place by phone, and that the Turkish and Syrian authorities had reached the stage of forming a “committee of educated experts” from both sides specialized in the Syrian issue, and thus the negotiation between the two countries would move to a new level. new.
what is happening?
So far, there has been no comment from the Syrian regime regarding what is happening in Turkey, but it has previously issued a series of statements calling on the Turkish forces to leave the country, describing it as an “occupation.”
Faisal Miqdad’s last comment regarding Ankara was on July 20, when he considered that “it is useless for Turkey to enter Syria’s borders,” commenting on Turkish threats to launch a new military operation.
In his speech on the sidelines of the “Tehran Summit”, Miqdad considered that the occurrence of this (the Turkish operation) would lead to “a conflict between the Syrian government and Turkey, and would affect the two friendly and brotherly peoples.”
“The relationship or the lack of a relationship between Turkey and the Assad regime is still frozen, because Ankara has not seen Damascus take any steps that require a reassessment of diplomatic relations,” says Yusuf Erim, a journalist specializing in analyzing Turkish foreign policies.
In an interview with Al-Hurra, the journalist believes that in order for relations to enter a new phase, “Turkey will require seeing progress on a few critical issues that could include the political solution process, serious security guarantees, amnesty for members of the Syrian opposition, and a tougher approach toward units Protecting the people, a roadmap for freedom and integrity, and elections.”
Thus, Erim adds that “the possibility of progress on these issues with Bashar al-Assad in power is slim.”
It is no secret that the biggest supporters of the Syrian regime (Russia and Iran) want to restore diplomatic relations between Ankara and Damascus.
The Russian president has expressed this desire several times, most recently at the Sochi summit during his bilateral meeting with his Turkish counterpart earlier this month.
“But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made it clear that the phone call between Erdogan and Assad is not on Turkey’s agenda,” Erim explains.
For his part, Hisham Junay, a researcher in Turkish political affairs, says that what we are seeing at the moment “is a change in the Turkish foreign policy,” adding, “We may not have expected these statements from the foreign minister, but it is very clear that the Sochi and Tehran summits greatly influenced the political decision.” Turkish”.
In an interview with Al-Hurra website, Junay believes that “the pressure exerted by Moscow on Erdogan brought tangible results in favor of Russian interests, as well as in the interests of the Assad regime.”
He also believes that “Turkey is now likely to have a Syrian state headed by Assad next to it and on its borders instead of a Kurdish entity, even a semi-independent entity that threatens its security and stability.”
Is normalization easy?
While there are no common denominators between Ankara and Damascus so far, the relationship of the former with the latter’s allies (Russia and Turkey) remains the only link, the details of which are announced between “politics and the field.”
There is also another link, which officials have previously talked about, related to intelligence communication.
There are a series of “hostile files” that govern the relationship between Turkey and the regime, according to observers, which indicates that “the process of restoring relations will not be easy in the foreseeable future.”
Following the Tehran and Sochi summits, Erdogan twice indicated that the last links in the security belt of the Turkish armed forces must be completed, referring to the “safe zone” that Ankara wants to establish along the northern border of Syria.
Moreover, among the obstacles to the political process between Turkey and Assad is the lack of consensus between the regime and the opposition inside Syria, in addition to the lack of consensus between Ankara and Damascus on “fighting terrorism” and the issue of refugees and displaced persons, whose numbers are estimated to be in the millions.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the only correspondence between Turkey and the regime has been at an “intelligence level”.
However, according to journalist Erim, “With immigration being a major issue and the YPG terrorist organization continuing to create a major national security concern for Turkey. Exploring ways to establish a low- to mid-level diplomatic channel may be a pragmatic approach that may lead to progress on these issues.”
While a high-level meeting between Erdogan and Assad is “highly unlikely,” the Turkish journalist notes, “this does not change the fact that Assad and his regime are a reality on the ground that Turkey has to deal with.”
He continues, “A step such as appointing a special envoy can create a channel that may lead to progress on many issues that have been frozen for years.”
However, the researcher, Hisham Junay, believes that “the return of relations will be difficult in light of the existing political data.”
“The conciliatory discourse with al-Assad came from the Turkish opposition, not from the government. The latter had previously rejected al-Assad’s stay, even in the constitutional discussions, and in the international tracks in Astana and Geneva.”
“Currently, I think that if the government returns and retracts its previous policy, the matter will be used by the opposition at home against it. It will be said that the government succumbed to international pressures and changed its policies. It will not convince the Turkish public opinion,” Junay said.
The Turkish researcher says: “There is indeed a hint from the Turkish government, perhaps with the intention of conciliation, but it came in a different context, and under pressure from Iran and Russia, and not with Erdogan’s will per se.”
“Cooperation, not Relationships”
The polarization that we witnessed in the Middle East and North Africa during the “Arab Spring” has given way to pragmatism and reconciliation, over the past two years.
Journalist Erim says: “We saw this with the end of the siege of Qatar at the Al-Ula summit, the Ibrahim agreements, and Turkey’s normalization with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.”
Despite this, the conditions separating Turkey and the Syrian regime are still valid and clear.
The journalist adds: “I do not see the return of diplomatic relations in the near future. But there may be room for cooperation and understanding on issues of mutual interest.”
Among these issues, for example: “The dissolution of the People’s Protection Units and their dispersal in the ranks of the regime’s army,” according to the journalist, adding, “This will be a step that will alleviate Turkey’s concerns about national security, and change its opinion regarding a military operation against the group.”
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) constitutes a military pillar of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is supported by the United States of America, in the context of the war against ISIS.
Regarding the position of the street opposing the Syrian regime, which rose up with large protests that withdrew to most of the northern Syrian regions, the Turkish journalist considered that “it was very disappointing to see the protests and the burning of the Turkish flag by elements who define themselves as the Syrian opposition.”
Erim asserts that “Turkey has been the strongest supporter of the opposition since the beginning of the civil war. Ankara has spent billions of dollars on refugees, hosted millions of migrants in Turkey and lost Turkish soldiers protecting Syrians against the regime.”
He continues, referring to the fears of the opposition circles: “Turkey has a strong record of support and loyalty towards allies and partners. From the Government of National Accord in Libya to Azerbaijan in the Karabakh War. Turkey provided strong support to its allies and achieved positive results, and it has no plans to abandon its local Syrian partners.”
“However, these kinds of protests and images of flag burning can create negative feelings within Turkey and harm the future of the partnership,” he added.
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