DAMASCUS — The Russian-brokered meeting between the foreign ministers of Syria and Turkey in Moscow on May 10 was considered a watershed moment for many in the region, as it heralded a sharp deviation from the bitter hostilities over the last decade.
Naturally, it was presumed that the course between Ankara and Damascus would run parallel to the rapid normalization efforts between Syria and Saudi Arabia and the plethora of deals and agreements taking center stage in the Middle East today.
However, the long-touted reconciliation has failed to materialize. Rather, it seems as distant as ever, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s no-nonsense interview with Sky News Arabia this week providing the greatest indicator that the two countries are still many miles apart.
Assad hits pause
Assad told the Abu Dhabi-based, UAE-owned outlet, “Terrorism in Syria is made in Turkey,” in reference to Ankara’s support of Syria’s armed opposition. Assad also dispelled the idea that there would be a quick fix in relations or a long-awaited meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the current climate.
“Erdogan’s objective in meeting me is to legitimize the Turkish occupation in Syria," Assad added. "Why should I and Erdogan meet? To have soft drinks?”
In July, Erdogan had said that he was open to meeting Assad but not changing policy. “The door is open to Assad but their approach is important. Assad wants Turkey out of northern Syria. This is out of the question. We are fighting terrorism there,” Turkey's strongman said.
"A meeting with Assad can take place. There is no resentment in politics. Sooner or later, we can take steps," he added.
Assad was clear that no meeting would take place under the current circumstances and is unlikely without a comprehensive agreement. “No preconditions mean meeting without an agenda. No agenda means no preparation; no preparation means no results, so why do Erdogan and I meet?” he stated.
“We want to reach a clear goal. Our goal is the Turkish withdrawal from the Syrian lands, while Erdogan’s goal is to legitimize the presence of the Turkish occupation in Syria. Therefore, the meeting cannot take place under Erdogan’s conditions.” At the tense Moscow meeting of foreign ministers, the joint statement issued highlighted the principle of Syria’s sovereignty over its territory and the need to fight terrorism, a term that remains ambiguous as ever.
Not least because the parties involved have differing interpretations of who constitutes a terrorist, Turkey’s priorities are the Kurdish groups in the north and Assad’s are the Turkish-backed opposition in the northwest.
The delicate quandary is not helped by the myriad of factors and rival factions involved, from Russia to Iran to Saudi Arabia, Middle East analyst Alexander Langlois told Al-Monitor. “Talks between Damascus and Ankara appear to be stuck, largely hung up on the issue of the Turkish military presence in Syria and support for Syrian opposition groups and militias. Assad feels emboldened by recent advancements with Arab states, namely renormalization with Saudi Arabia and Syria's return to the Arab League,” he said.
Langlois, who is closely following the rapprochement efforts, went on, “He is therefore opting to double down on tough negotiation stances [such as a Turkish withdrawal] as conditioned upon any presidential meeting. This is likely a non-starter for Turkey at present, leaving the talks at a standstill for now.”
Refugees, border hurdles
Turkey’s predicament is that it ultimately hosts around 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has a military presence in many parts of northern Syria, which the Syrian government considers a military occupation, reducing the chance of a broad solution as it won’t negotiate while Turkish troops are stationed in Syria.
Langlois continued, “Turkey's domestic situation plays a role here — municipal elections and Turkish sentiments about Syrian refugees certainly play a role in Erdogan's thinking on the Syria file. But the odds of these elections going poorly for the AKP-led coalition based on the Syrian refugee issue appear low now, or at least low enough to avoid any major shift on the part of Ankara about the Syria file as a condition ahead of any presidential meeting.”
Ankara, on the other hand, has deviated from its initial policy of seeking a change in the Syrian leadership and is now focused on Kurdish fighters along the borders. On the intelligence level there has been progress. Syria's former spymaster Ali Mamlouk met his counterpart Hakan Fidan — then Turkey's intelligence chief — in Bagdad as efforts were made to reinvigorate diplomacy and security channels between the two countries.
Issues on the agenda ranged from the Kurdistan Workers Party, Syrian civilians in Turkey and the situation in Syrian areas on the border with Turkey. Fidan also met with Mamlouk several times in Damascus as they tried to iron out a deal, yet with the saber-rattling in play, Fidan — now foreign minister and close Erdogan confidant — could utilize his strong intelligence ties to Syria in the grueling negotiation process in the years to come, as the current deadlock seems far from breaking.