President Erdoğan said on December 15th that he had proposed to Russia’s President Putin to hold a trilateral meeting between Turkey, Russia, and Syria. First, chiefs of intelligence would meet, followed by a meeting with ministers of defense, and later a meeting with ministers of foreign affairs. After these meetings laid the ground, he opined that the three presidents could have a trilateral meeting. In this context, Turkey’s National Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, and Chief of National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, held a trilateral meeting with their Russian and Syrian counterparts in Moscow on Wednesday. According to the Defense Ministry’s statement, they discussed the Syrian crisis, the refugee issue, and the joint fight against all terror organizations on Syrian soil. They decided to continue this “constructive” trilateral meeting to maintain order in Syria in particular and in the region in general.
When Ankara talks about terrorism in Syria, it almost always means fighting against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Other terrorist organizations or some shady armed groups usually do not make a list. Therefore, it is unlikely that Ankara's agenda over this meeting was different from that of the previous bilateral talks between Turkish and Syrian intelligence officers during the last year. It is also unlikely that the outcome of this trilateral meeting will be different from the earlier talks. Nonetheless, such meetings enhance the image that things are getting normalized between Turkey and Syria and that the Syrian refugees can return to their homeland sometime in the near future.
Turkey has recently doubled its efforts in Syria because the presidential elections are just around the corner. Parallel to the underperformance of Turkey’s economy in the last years, several polls point out that the Turkish public has become far less receptive to Syrians and Afghans who had to leave their homelands. Erdoğan needs to give a perception that he is the only person who can resolve the Syrian refugee problem in Turkey, where reside approximately 4 million Syrian refugees.
If Erdoğan can secure a meeting with al-Assad ahead of the elections, this could give him an edge over his yet-to-be-named opponent. He will then probably blame Turkey’s refugee problem on his old confidant, Davutoğlu, who was the champion for Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war as Erdoğan’s minister of foreign affairs. Many political parties have already justifiably blamed him for Turkey’s refugee woes, making him a perfect scapegoat for one of the Turkish citizens’ chief complaints. Davutoğlu switched sides a few years ago and is now part of the opposition alliance. The Syrian government has also grasped this motivation well. A member of the Syrian parliament, Mayada al-Ali, rightly highlights that “Erdogan’s attempts to approach Syria aim at obtaining gains at home. What the Turkish opposition promises to achieve regarding Syrian refugees and relations with Syria, Erdogan is already trying to accomplish ahead of the presidential election.”
According to the Damascus government, a meeting between the presidents could boost Erdoğan’s chances of reelection in the presidential election. But the Syrian government is in no mood to provide Erdoğan an easy election victory after long years of feuding. In this vein, Reuters reported on December 2nd that “no rapprochement will happen before the elections and that Syria had also turned down the idea of a foreign ministers' meeting.” In other words, Damascus will probably keep the talks between the countries within the realm of intelligence and security until the next elections. If Erdoğan is to stay, then it will reshape its negotiating strategy.
Another push factor for normalization between Turkey and Syria is related to Ankara’s efforts to contain the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria and, if possible, reverse its territorial gains. To do so, Ankara must convince the countries that deploy troops within Syria. And these players can be divided into two major camps: the US on one side, Russia, Iran, and Syria on the other side. Turkey has been coordinating closely with Russia and Iran with the meetings of Astana format. Given that Russia has to reduce its presence in Syria and concentrate on the war in Ukraine, Moscow is now pushing harder for Ankara to reconcile with Damascus.
While the Damascus regime does not trust Erdoğan for understandable reasons, it has more profound qualms with the SDF’s involvement with the US. A reasonable way for Damascus to undermine the US military presence in the Eastern Euphrates is to increase cooperation with Ankara. In the same vein, Turkey’s pressure over the SDF and the inability of the US to protect them from a Turkish incursion would inevitably pull them closer to the Damascus regime. This is why Damascus did not react harshly to Turkey’s recent air campaign in Northern Syria despite losing some of its soldiers.
To conclude, these trilateral meetings will likely continue among the security bureaucracy for some time. Likewise, the agenda will be set around security issues and reversing the SDF’s gains in the last decade, a common goal that serves both the interests of Ankara and Damascus. It is most likely that the Al-Assad government, which profoundly mistrusts Erdoğan, will wait until the presidential elections in Turkey for further normalization of relations. But one should keep in mind that Ankara will probably have less incentive to yield to the Syrian demands, such as withdrawing Turkish troops from Syria after Erdoğan secures another win in the elections.