After The Earthquake, A Syrian-Turkish Settlement Is More Urgent
(The following article was originally published on geopolitika.ru website)
On Tuesday, February 14, a Russian MFA media release about a meeting between Mikhail Bogdanov, the Special Representative of the Russian President, and Kadri Jamil, one of the Syrian Opposition leaders, stated: “the Russian side stressed the need to establish practical cooperation between Damascus and Ankara in order to overcome the consequences of the earthquake on February 6.”
This statement confirms Russia’s pursuit of a Syrian-Turkish settlement, which over the seven months preceding the earthquake, was the main item on the agenda of the Astana Format (for Syria peace talks).
The first public indication of this was a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during his visit to Damascus on July 2, 2022, in which he said: “(We are) working to resolve existing misunderstandings between the two neighboring countries through diplomacy and dialogue.” The use of the word “misunderstandings” has proven to be deliberate and indicative of Iran’s belief that the dispute between the two countries can and must be resolved.
Shortly thereafter, Russia announced that it had also been working “for many years” to reach normalization of relations between the two neighboring countries.
As for Türkiye, on August 19, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to reporters that “he can never rule out dialogue and diplomacy with Syria.” He also said that there is a “need to take further steps with Syria.” Later, he expressed his willingness to hold a meeting with the Syrian president.
Together, these statements made it clear that work on a Syrian-Turkish settlement is a joint effort by the Astana trio (Türkiye, Russia, and Iran). This project moved forward quickly, as demonstrated by holding the first meeting in more than 12 years at the ministerial level between the defense ministers of Syria and Türkiye in Moscow on December 28, 2022. Additionally, Turkish and Russian officials announced in January 2023 that preparations are underway for a meeting between the Syrian and Turkish foreign ministers, as well as a meeting between the Syrian and Turkish presidents.
On the opposite side, Washington rejected this approach through statements that did not explicitly mention Türkiye, but reaffirmed rejection of normalization with the Syrian authorities. In a January 4th statement, Turkish Foreign Minister, Cavusoglu, confirmed Washington’s position on the issue, when said: “we understand and know that the United States is against normalizing our relations with the Syrian side.”
The Astana group vs. the “Like-Minded” group
Understanding the importance of a Syrian-Turkish settlement requires understanding the international dimension of the Syrian crisis, which can be summarized by the contradiction between two Syria-related international groups.
The first group is the Astana Format – Russia, Türkiye, and Iran – which practically formed with the first tripartite meeting of these countries’ presidents on the Syrian issue at the end of 2016, which was followed by five summits at the presidents’ level and many meetings at lower levels. Despite difficulties, this group managed to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria by mid-2019.
The second (Western) group is the U.S.-led so-called “Like-Minded” group, which includes the U.K., France, Germany, KSA, Egypt, Jordan, in addition to Türkiye, which is in the two contradictory groups. The first recognizable appearance of this group can be dated to the end of 2017, since which it has acted as the anti-Astana group. This group’s work mainly revolved around coordinating sanctions on Syria and actions against the Astana group.
The presence of Türkiye in both groups reflects, to a large extent, the strategic positioning of Türkiye itself, as well as the developments and shifting of this positioning. While Türkiye was closer to the West in 2011, it started since moving slowly and deliberately towards adapting to new realities at the international level, mainly the American retreat and the emerging powers’ rise.
The attempted coup in Türkiye in 2016 was an important turning point in the shifting of Türkiye’s positioning in the international sense, accelerated the growing understandings among Türkiye, Russia, China, and Iran, and deepened problems with the U.S. and European countries. One very indicative sign is that, for the first time, Türkiye did not attend the last meeting of the “Like-Minded” group on January 24. It is worth noting that also KSA, Egypt, and Jordan did not attend that meeting.
Significance of a Syrian-Turkish settlement
Reaching a Syrian-Turkish settlement would mean that the U.S.-led Western “Like-Minded” group on Syria not only loses its only member actively present on the Syrian borders, but also that the group will lose one of its main functions, specifically isolating Syria and suffocating it through sanctions.
The Syrian-Turkish borders are also Syria’s borders with the rising regional and international powers, particularly Russia, Iran, China, and India. This means that reaching a Syrian-Turkish settlement means connecting Syria to the rising powers and significantly minimizing the U.S.’s ability to control Syria through sanctions, and further reducing the U.S.’s weight in the entire Middle East.
Additionally, throughout the second half of the 20th century, Syria and Türkiye stood on two contradictory international fronts: “East” vs. “West,” respectively. For the first time in decades, it is very probable the two states will not only be on the same international front, but more importantly, on the correct one based on the interests of the two countries and their peoples.