What to Expect from Türkiye-Syria Talks?

After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the Turkish Embassy in Damascus closed in March 2012. Despite this, the two countries established some contact, even during the worst moments of the conflict. These contacts, mostly between intelligence services, are not of a diplomatic nature, but they are important in terms of showing that talks between the two countries are ongoing, albeit at a lower level. Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's statement that he was open to meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the diplomats of the two countries started establishing contacts with the mediation of Russia. These talks yielded results quickly, and with the meeting of the defense ministers of the two countries in Moscow on December 28, 2022, the first high-level official contact between Ankara and Damascus in 11 years was established. While negotiations were expected to continue, two developments caused the process to slow down: Iran's insistence on being included in the talks and the Kahramanmaraş-centered earthquakes that took place on February 6, 2023, which deeply affected both countries.

Initially, the ongoing Russian-hosted Türkiye, and Syria negotiations did not include Iran. However, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s insistent demands to be included in the negotiations by conducting shuttle diplomacy in Ankara and Damascus were eventually accepted. As a result, the Ankara-Damascus talks, mediated by Russia, were transformed into the Astana format, with the participation of four countries: Türkiye, Syria, Russia, and Iran. This process resulted in a decrease in contact between Türkiye and Syria.

After Iran was included in the negotiations, an earthquake occurred on February 6, 2023, resulting in the deaths of over 50 thousand people in the two countries. As a result, contacts between the two countries were put on hold. However, once the wounds caused by the earthquake began to heal, talks resumed on April 3-4 in Moscow, hosted by Russia. The meeting, which was attended by deputy ministers of foreign affairs, focused on setting up meetings between the foreign ministers of the four countries. During his  opening speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked the parties to make efforts towards comprehensive normalization, using expressions such as "we expect you to be as flexible and constructive as possible".

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Ankara on April 7, 2023, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and President Erdoğan. The talks covered several topics, including the war in Ukraine, the grain crisis, the Karabakh crisis, and most notably, the Syrian crisis within the context of the Ankara-Damascus talks. It is worth noting that Lavrov's visit to Ankara followed talks in Moscow, and his bilateral meetings with Turkish officials may have helped expedite the slow process of negotiations.

Despite the slow progress of talks between Ankara and Damascus, it is expected that negotiations will continue. In fact, it is not a sustainable situation for the two countries, which share a 911-kilometer-long border, to continue living with the problems accumulated during the civil war. Politicians who are aware of this situation are determined to bring these problematic issues to the discussion table.

Another crucial issue discussed is the Syrian refugees in Türkiye. Currently, Türkiye hosts 3.6 million registered refugees and expects Damascus to make the necessary legal and practical arrangements to ensure that the refugees can safely and voluntarily return to their home country. Additionally, the situation concerning extremist armed groups in the region is also among the topics discussed. While the Damascus administration expects the suppression of the armed opposition elements that fought against it. In return, Türkiye expects  the dissolution of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it perceives as a threat along its border.

It is not feasible to offer immediate solutions to all these issues. Nonetheless, it is probable that the parties will take the initial steps towards the normalization process by initially focusing on common points. Both sides prioritize the issue of ensuring the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.

Furthermore, a reactivation of the Adana Agreement, signed in 1998, would enable joint efforts against any perceived threat along the Türkiye-Syria border. Additionally, Türkiye can contribute to the reintegration of Syria into the international system and assist in the country's reconstruction. Although the main objective of the talks between the two countries is to normalize their relations by finding solutions to problematic areas, it is possible to start by establishing communication over common areas in order to develop dialogue. Indeed, both sides attach great importance to the issue of normalization.

To ensure sustainable progress in the talks, it is likely that the parties will adopt a compartmentalization strategy, separating the issues and dealing with them independently. As many problems have accumulated over the years, it may not be possible to resolve them all  immediately. Therefore, prioritizing issues that can be resolved over time could be highly effective in developing mutual understanding and keeping the dialogue channels open. Turkish-Russian relations serve as an example of this approach.

Moreover, the normalization of relations between the two countries could have wider geopolitical implications. The conflict in Syria has been a major source of tension in the region, with various regional and global powers taking sides in the conflict. Normalization could contribute to reducing tensions and increasing cooperation between countries in the region, which could ultimately lead to greater stability.

Lastly, it is important to note that normalization will not be a simple or easy process, given the complex and long-standing issues between the two countries. It will require mutual trust, compromise, and the ability to address each other's concerns in a constructive manner. Nevertheless, with determination and commitment, the ongoing negotiations between the two countries could lead to a positive outcome that benefits both sides and the wider region.

This article was published on Rudaw on  April 12, 2023, with the title "What to Expect from Türkiye-Syria Talks?”