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Turkey, Syria defense chiefs meet in Russia, discuss ‘normalization'

The Moscow meeting was described as “positive” by both sides since Syrian-Turkish rapprochement took off last year.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar is seen standing at the start of the North Atlantic Council meeting of defence ministers during the second and final day of the NATO defence ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters on October 13, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) Defence Ministers are convening at the NATO headquarters in Brussels for a two-day summit as the war in Ukraine continues into its seventh month. (Photo by Omar Havana - Pool / Getty Images)

ANKARA — The Turkish and Syrian defense and intelligence chiefs discussed the concrete steps that could be taken to normalize Ankara-Damascus ties on Tuesday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mahmoud Abbas, along with both countries’ intelligence chiefs in Moscow. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani, as well as both countries' intelligence chiefs, also joined the talks.

The Turkish Defense Ministry’s statement said the meeting took place in a constructive atmosphere, using the word “normalization” vis-a-vis its ties with Damascus publicly for the first time since their ties were severed.

In addition, the sides discussed strengthening the security situation in Syria, combating terrorist organizations and all extremist groups, and intensifying efforts to return Syrian refugees to their home country, according to the statement. 

“The parties confirmed their respect for Syria's territorial integrity,” said the statement.

Damascus' version of the meeting differed from Ankara's, yet the Syrian side also described the meeting as “positive,” according to the Syria's official news outlet, SANA.

The parties discussed the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the war-torn country stationed mostly in the north and the reopening of the strategic M-4 highway south of Idlib, which is under the control of extremist groups. It links parts of Aleppo held by Turkish-backed groups and Latakia, which remains under Russian military influence, SANA said. 

Tuesday's high-level talks in Moscow marked the second three-way meeting with Turkish and Syrian defense and intelligence chiefs. The first one convened in late December 2022. Iran later joined the Moscow-brokered talks. 

The diplomatic ties between Turkey and Syria were severed following the nationwide protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that turned into a civil war following Damascus’ violent crackdown in 2012. Turkey, which backs Sunni Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad, controls a large chunk of territory in the country’s north following four ground operations since 2016. Three of those targeted US-allied Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara considers terrorists. Iran and Russia, in turn, support the Syrian government. 

Ankara seeks Damascus’ cooperation in the fight against the Syrian Kurdish groups — the top allies of the United States in Syria who fought the Islamic State.  Turkey also wants to ensure the safe return of some 4 million refugees residing in the country, where anti-refugee sentiment runs high. Damascus, in turn, is pressing for the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from its territories, the ending of the backing of rebel groups and full normalization with the Assad government. 

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