The first high-level talks between Turkey and Syria in over a decade held in Moscow last week reflect the common interests of the two nations in limiting the autonomy of Syrian Kurds, experts say.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said more talks are planned for later this month.
Analysts speaking to VOA believe that if the process moves forward, an Erdogan-Assad meeting might be in the works. But they caution Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might be unwilling to hand Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a political gift before the elections in Turkey, possibly in May.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met their Syrian counterparts last Wednesday in Moscow. They were joined by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and discussed the “Syrian crisis, the refugee problem and joint efforts against all terror groups on Syrian soil,” according to a statement by the Turkish Ministry of Defense.
Turkey supported the armed rebels that sought to topple Assad in Syria during the civil war that began in 2011, locking the two countries in bitter animosity for years.
The first contact between Turkey and Syria since the beginning of the civil war discreetly started between their intelligence services some time ago. Recent talks between the defense ministers underscored Ankara’s effort to engage in dialogue with Damascus, representing a major foreign policy reversal.
Last week’s meeting follows Turkey’s threat to launch another military offensive against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, an action opposed by Russia, the United States and Iran.
The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State. Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.
Speaking to journalists before the talks in Moscow, Akar said Ankara had been in contact with Moscow about using Syrian airspace for a possible military operation.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told VOA that Ankara and Damascus share an interest in limiting the autonomy of the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria, and the talks reflect common security concerns with respect to the YPG.
“I do not discount a coordinated Syrian-Turkish effort against the YPG, particularly in Tel Rifaat or Manbij,” Ford said. “More likely, Ankara hopes Moscow and Damascus can convince the YPG to quit these locales without fighting and allow restoration of full Syrian control backed by Russian forces.”
Ford is currently a fellow at Yale University and at the Middle East Institute, based in Washington.
He added that despite having difficult relations, the Assad regime and the YPG sometimes cooperate because Assad finds their presence in the northeast “occasionally useful.”
Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, agrees that Turkey’s effort for dialogue with the Syrian government is partly dictated by its YPG concern. He said Erdogan wants to find common ground with Assad to remove the YPG from the border area and repress any Kurdish bid for autonomy.
Election concerns amid refugee problem
Experts speaking to VOA believe that the upcoming Turkish elections represent another significant factor at play.
Turkey hosts more than 4 million Syrian refugees. The government says it’s working on a plan to send 1 million Syrians back to their country on a voluntary basis. The refugee issue has recently been a sensitive one in Turkey’s domestic politics with elections a few months away.
Pointing to the Turkish public’s strong sentiment regarding the refugee issue, Makovsky told VOA that Erdogan hopes he can convince voters that dialogue with Assad will lead to the return of most Syrian refugees.
Cavusoglu hinted at more talks later this month, possibly at the foreign minister level, with Damascus.
“Russia has come forward with a date, but we’re not available on those days. So, we are working on some other proposals,” he told journalists on Tuesday.
Cavusoglu did not completely rule out the possibility of a meeting between the two presidents before the Turkish elections but said the decision would be up to Erdogan, adding that presidential level talks could be considered after the foreign ministers meet.
Reuters reported last month that Syria opposed the idea of a leaders’ summit with Turkey, saying Damascus believed such a meeting could boost Erdogan ahead of the elections.
Some analysts said there has to be some political progress before the two leaders can meet.
“I would expect an Erdogan-Assad meeting only if Erdogan needed a dramatic step to address the refugee issue, or if Assad was ready to make a major concession, such as guaranteeing safety for returning refugees. Assad is unlikely to hand Erdogan any political gift,” Ford said.
Turkey’s reconciliation effort with Syria continues to dominate the headlines in the Turkish press and public discussion. Experts say recent polls indicate there is a strong desire among Turkish citizens for a dramatic shift in the government’s Syria policy.
Makovsky said recent diplomatic momentum and political logic suggest an Assad-Erdogan agreement by spring. He pointed to a recent survey by Turkish polling company Metropoll that highlighted the domestic political dynamics in Turkey.
“Turks favor talking to Assad by 59-29 [percent], according to the survey. Erdogan could derive some political benefit from a mere photo-op. But Assad probably has no interest in helping Erdogan’s reelection bid. Turkey’s opposition party, CHP, has called for dialogue with Assad and noninterference in Syria since 2011. However, Russia almost certainly does want Erdogan to be reelected, and it’s well-positioned to make Assad agree to meet the Turkish president,” he told VOA.
US criticism and Russia
A spokesperson from the U.S. State Department said in a statement sent to VOA’s Turkish Service last week that the U.S. does not support countries “upgrading their relations to rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad” and urged the nations to “carefully consider the atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people” over the last decade.
Analysts speaking to VOA say Washington does not want to see the Assad government in Syria being legitimized and emboldened, because it would be a diplomatic and geopolitical success for Russia, from Washington’s perspective.
They also believe the U.S. does not want an agreement between Damascus and Ankara that would enable either the Turkish military or Syrian government forces to “weaken or distract the YPG” from its focus against Islamic State.
Some argue that Russia might be willing to give the green light to a military operation by Turkey in return for dialogue with the Assad government. Makovsky challenges that view, saying Russian opposition to another military action by Turkey appears quite firm.
He said Ankara’s request to purchase F-16 military fighter jets from Washington could be a factor in coming months, noting that foreign arms sales are subject to U.S. congressional approval.
Cavusoglu said he will meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken later this month in Washington to discuss bilateral issues, including Ankara’s F-16 request.
The two recently spoke by phone, and according to the readout provided, Blinken expressed concern over the situation in Syria.
The State Department confirmed the planned talks in the statement sent to VOA’s Turkish Service but did not provide additional details.
This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service. Dilge Timocin contributed to this report.