Irbil – By overseeing the restoration of bilateral connections between Syria and Turkey, Russia may be seeking to emulate China’s success in mediating the normalisation of diplomatic ties between Middle East heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran. Analysts warn, however, that key distinctions between the two normalisation initiatives work against a speedy breakthrough.
The military ministers from Turkey and Syria met in Moscow in December for talks that were considered as the start of a potential reconciliation between the two adversaries. Since the two nations cut their connections in 2012 when the Syrian civil war began, this was the highest-level encounter between Turkish and Syrian officials.
On April 3–4, the constable foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria will meet once more in Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria. The conference “is intended to be a continuation of the ministerial-level sessions that began during the normalisation process,” a senior Turkish source told Reuters. This process was supported by Russia.
According to Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Arabian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “Russia has plenty of leverage with Syrian President Bashar Assad and good relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which gives it authority and weight in the Turkiye-Syrian negotiations.”
According to him, there are a number of significant obstacles preventing an agreement between Syria and Turkiye, which holds about 10% of Syrian territory and supports the rebel forces opposed to Assad’s regime.
The US has not had diplomatic connections with Iran for decades, despite Beijing’s success in mediating between Riyadh and Tehran due to its friendly relations with both nations. However, Washington dislikes Assad and has warned allies against normalising ties with Damascus. On the other hand, Russia continues to have cordial relations with Syria and Turkey.
Yet, there is one key difference in how these interactions are structured. Russia’s relations with Turkey and Syria are significantly less balanced than China’s with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Because of Moscow’s support for Damascus throughout the most recent decade-long civil war, “Russia is firmly involved as a security guarantor for the Syrian government,” says Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence firm RANE.
This is considerably different from China’s more equal relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran; neither Tehran nor Riyadh can look to China as a security guarantee.
“Russia’s deep ties to the Syrian regime undoubtedly give it the ability to negotiate with Syria that few other nations possess, but Russia does not have the same kind of ties with Turkey.”
Although it has attempted to serve as a mediator, independent Russian expert and non-resident scholar for the Middle East Institute’s Syria programme Anton Mardasov has concerns that Moscow can accomplish what Beijing accomplished because it is “a party to the crisis in Syria.”
According to Mardasov of Arab News, “The Kremlin finds itself in a delicate position: On the one hand, it wants to boost Damascus’ potential in order to relieve itself of responsibility for its survival. Moscow’s objective in this regard is the strengthening of, for instance, economic cooperation and the restoration of Syrian-Turkish ties.
In addition, he added, “the Kremlin is interested in pressuring Assad to strengthen ties with Turkiye since it is in Ankara’s interest, particularly given the refugee situation, considering the conflict in Ukraine and Turkiye’s significance as an economic partner.
Moscow’s efforts to normalise relations with Ankara are further hampered by the stark differences between the two countries on what should happen to northern Syria.
Yemen would be the most similar terrain to Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Yemen is a separate sovereign state, and the mechanics of the battle there are significantly different, according to Hawthorne.
“The difficult question of what would happen to northern Syria and if Damascus can guarantee that it will allay Turkiye’s security worries regarding Kurdish rebels there would be among the challenges Russia would confront trying to broker restored Ankara-Damascus relations.”
Assad, according to Mardasov, is weak and making unreasonable demands. Despite having troops on the border and the ability to immediately intervene on behalf of these opposition forces, he noted that Turkiye technically has no troops in northern Syria because such territories are under the authority of allied opposition factions.
He referred to the tripartite Russia-Iran-Turkeyye Syria peace process inaugurated in January 2017 as the Astana process, adding that “the presence of Turkish soldiers in Idlib was formally sanctioned not only by Russia but also by Iran inside the framework of the Astana process.” Thus, insisting on their departure would be insisting on the collapse of the Astana agreements.
In addition, Turkiye has enormous influence over Syrian regions that are home to millions of people.
As Assad’s guardian, Russia is also dependent on Turkiye for projects against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine and for negotiations on the Syrian track, so this is truly quite a difficult scenario, according to Mardasov. As the scenario is not very favourable for the Kremlin strategically, it is more important here to take tactical actions to prevent Moscow from worsening its position.
Landis predicts that until after Turkiye’s elections on May 14, the negotiations would mostly be put on hold.
He said, “The Turkish opposition has criticised Erdogan’s policy towards Syria and asserts that it will swiftly normalise relations with Syria. Furthermore, the Syrian rebel organisations that Erdogan supported and vowed to defend are of little concern to the Turkish opposition.
The challenge of coping with the four million migrants and Islamist militiamen won’t go away, he continued, but if Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins in May, relations between Damascus and Ankara “are likely to improve swiftly.”
Normalization is also in Russia’s best interests.
A more stable client state for Moscow translates into a more solid position for Russia in the larger Middle East, according to Hawthorne.
In addition, if Russia’s efforts on this front stall, the stakes are not too high.
According to Hawthorne, “Moscow’s status in the Middle East depends more on Russia’s capacity to maintain a Rolodex of drastically varied bilateral relationships across the region. If Moscow fails in this attempt, it is unlikely to dramatically harm Russia’s standing.”
“Russian mediation could advance the dialogue between Syria and Turkey, but it is unlikely Moscow would be successful until Ankara and Damascus reach their own agreement on the future of northern Syria.”
Landis further emphasised that Russia has “a tremendous deal” invested in Assad’s Syria and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “victory” there has been a “huge achievement for Russian foreign policy.”
Syria is still in danger, though, because of the widespread opposition to Assad and the “devastating sanctions” put on Damascus.
“Putin will have secured his victory if he can end Syria’s isolation and aid in reviving regional diplomatic and commerce relations,” Landis added.
Notwithstanding this, he is certain that a deal will eventually be reached between Ankara and Damascus.
Even if it would be a difficult road, I think Syria and Turkey’s relations will improve, he said. “The 764-kilometer border between the two nations. Their shared interests include ending the arming of the Kurds, eradicating “terrorist,” and removing American soldiers from Syria.
Both parties are interested in reestablishing the positive ties that existed between them before the conflict and contributed to the prosperity and development of both nations.