Date: Over the last few weeks
Where: Damascus, Syria; Ankara, Turkey.
Who’s involved: Syrian government, Turkish government, Russian government; Turkey-backed Syrian rebel/opposition forces.
As Russia is pulling out of Syria, Moscow hopes to normalize Turkish-Syrian relations to secure its position in the country and stabilize the region. Over the last couple of weeks, talks with high Turkish (intelligence) officials, including the Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization, have laid the groundwork for higher political talks. At a summit in Uzbekistan, Erdogan expressed his wish to meet Assad to talk about the issue. However, Assad could not attend the summit.
Since 2015, Russia and Iran have been backing the Syrian government, while Turkey aided the rebel forces opposing Assad. Now, Turkey wants to include rebel forces in the talks, which may hamper Russia’s efforts to bring the two leaders together.
With the Russian withdrawal, Iranian militias have been setting up new training camps, headquarters, and warehouses with help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Sources claim that these training camps are also being used to train Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. Neither Russia nor Turkey wants Iranian influence in Syria.
On the weekend of 17-18 September 2022, Turkish forces executed several airstrikes against Assad’s forces and Syrian Democratic Forces (formerly US-backed). These strikes resulted in several casualties. To date, Turkey maintains a military presence across its border with Syria and in areas it controls with the Syrian opposition forces.
A rapprochement between the Syrian and Turkish governments would drastically change the dynamics of the decade-long Syrian civil war. Although talks between Ankara and Damascus could mean a more stable situation in the country, reaching an agreement between the two nations presents many challenges.
Turkey helped the rebel forces to maintain their final significant territorial foothold in Syria. Therefore, if Turkey decides to stop supporting the opposition groups, it is likely they will be neutralized by the Syrian government forces. Ankara has already requested the rebels to be included in the talks.
If the talks fail and Russia still decides to withdraw from Syria, Iran will likely get a stronger foothold in the country. This may upset the frail stability of the Middle East.
If the talks are successful and the relationship between Syria and Turkey improves, it could have grave implications for the Kurdish population in Syria. Kurds make up about 10% of the Syrian population, making them the largest minority in the country. The Syrian government, however, considers the Kurds to be an enemy of the state, as they played a key role during the uprising which started the Syrian civil war. Turkey has a long history of conflict against the Kurdish population, both within its territories and outside. The Turkish government considers the mainly-Kurdish Syrian People’s Defense Unit (YPG) a terrorist group affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK).
Civilians escaping the civil war are also likely to be affected by the potential talks. Millions of Syrians fled to neighboring Turkey when the war broke out. With Turkish general elections coming up in June 2023 and internal tensions rising, a deal between Ankara and Syria that will decide the fate of millions of refugees is likely, and forced returns cannot be ruled out.