The meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which was scheduled to occur on March 15 and 16 in Moscow, has been postponed indefinitely. The Turkish Foreign Ministry cited technical reasons for the delay, but there is a more substantive issue between Turkey and Syria. Although Russia did not confirm that the meeting would take place in Moscow, Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu told last week at a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart that "Russia offered to host a preliminary meeting for the preparations of this four-way meeting. This meeting will be held at the level of deputy ministers next week in Moscow."
The cancellation of the meeting can be interpreted as a snub to the Erdogan administration, especially since the abrupt nature of the cancellation did not allow Ankara to save face by providing a more reasonable excuse. The cancellation was announced by a source from the Turkish Foreign Ministry following the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s leader Bashar Assad in Moscow, where the Syrian-Turkish relationship was discussed. It seems that Syrian leader al-Assad did not get enough assurances from the Kremlin that would let him continue talks with Erdogan.
The Kremlin was insisting that Turkey and Syria should restore their ties. A formal détente between the two countries under the supervision of the Kremlin will benefit Russia in two ways. First, it will help Russia allocate more military resources that should be normally deployed in Syria. Second, it will show to the world that Russia is a reliable peace broker. At least, the Kremlin can successfully sell this second much-needed propaganda piece in non-Western countries where anti-Russian sentiment is lower.
However, al-Assad is hesitant to pursue this course of action due to his view of Erdogan as an unreliable partner who has severely betrayed him in the past. During a recent interview with a Russian RT channel, Bashar al-Assad stressed that the only thing that pushed Turkey to change its foreign policy and triggered talks between the two countries is the upcoming Turkish presidential elections, adding that the talks between Turkey and Syria will not serve Syrian interests but Turkey’s short-term tactics. Al-Assad also stated that he would only meet with Erdogan if Turkey withdraws its troops from Syria and ceases to lend support to the armed groups in Syria.
After a decade of mistrust, the ongoing suspicion should not come as a surprise. Nonetheless, the cancellation of the deputy foreign ministers' meeting indicates that al-Assad believes the Turkish opposition has a real shot at assuming power in Turkey’s presidential election scheduled in May. The leader of the opposition alliance in Turkey, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has already expressed a willingness to recognize al-Assad as Syria's only legitimate leader and cooperate with him to address Turkish-Syrian bilateral issues, including Turkey’s refugee problem.
It is a fact that one of the leading reasons why Erdogan is so eager to shake hands with his Syrian counterpart is related to the upcoming presidential elections. There is growing unease in Turkey about the refugee problem because of the worsening economic crisis. And this is one of the key talking points for the Turkish opposition. Erdogan wants to convey the message to his constituents that he can handle the refugee issue by breaking a deal with Damascus.
The postponement of the meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria in Moscow indicates the presence of underlying problems between Turkey and Syria. Both sides need to have the sincerity to improve ties, and it seems that none of the parties act in good faith in this regard. While the Kremlin urges Damascus to improve its relationship with Turkey for its own good, al-Assad is wary of the Turkish president due to his past behavior. Moreover, the Damascus government expects a change of government in Turkey in the upcoming elections that may prompt an improvement in Turkish-Syrian relations. In this context, it is highly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will undertake any actions that might enhance Erdogan's popularity before the Turkish presidential elections. On the other hand, if Erdoğan secures another election, Ankara will have less motivation to comply with Syrian demands to strike a deal.