Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs reportedly discussed a ceasefire in rebel-held Idlib and the status of eastern-based Kurdish forces.
By KRISTINA JOVANOVSKI / THE MEDIA LINE
A meeting between the Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs in Russia is a sign that Ankara is moving closer to handing back lands in northern Syria to President Bashar al-Assad, analysts told The Media Line.
A senior Turkish official confirmed the Monday meeting and said it focused on enhancing cooperation against Kurdish fighters as well as the ceasefire in Idlib Province, the last major rebel- held region, according to the Reuters news agency.
Notably, Turkey has backed forces, including the Free Syrian Army, that oppose Assad, who, in turn, has the support of Moscow.
Turkey’s main political opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has for two years encouraged a rapprochement with Damascus with a view toward facilitating the return of refugees to Syria.
There is widespread resentment among the public that Turkey is now home to 3.6 million Syrians, with some analysts claiming that the government could use them as scapegoats for the struggling economy.
Former Turkish ambassador to the United States Faruk Loğoğlu, who is a member of the CHP, said he was supportive of the latest developments. “Even if it doesn’t result in any payoffs in the short- term, it’s a good sign,” Loğoğlu told The Media Line.
“I think Turkey should have been talking to Syria a long time ago,” he added.
Loğoğlu stated that Turkey should remove its soldiers from Syria and make an agreement with Damascus regarding the local Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as a security threat.
Turkey launched a third military incursion in October of last year that aimed to clear the Syrian side of the shared border of Kurdish fighters with alleged connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously dealt with Turkish affairs at the US State Department, agrees that talks between Ankara and Damascus will most likely result in a Turkish military withdrawal.
“Turkey has limited leverage. Russia is the arbiter in Syria … [and] it was no doubt a bitter pill for the government [of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] to meet officially with the Assad regime,” Makovsky wrote in an email to The Media Line. “This meeting is probably a first step in a Russian plan to return Assad-regime sovereignty to the northeast.”
In this respect, Syrian state news reported that during Monday’s meeting Turkey was called on to “fully adhere to the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” including pulling its troops from the country. The report also predicted that government forces would “liberate” Idlib and “return the state’s authority” to the area.
CHP-member Loğoğlu stressed that the international community was responsible for ensuring the security of civilians in Syrian-controlled territory.
Assad has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons, including in May during an offensive in Idlib.
Loğoğlu added that the Turkish government should not depend on Russia for mediation but, rather, have direct contact with Damascus.
Despite their differences, Turkey’s relationship with Russia was strengthened last week as the countries launched a joint gas pipeline project. Ankara has also acquired the Russian-made S-400 anti-missile defense system even at the risk of incurring US economic sanctions.
Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Media Line that Russia will now expect Turkey to oversee the surrender of opposition fighters.
“Turkey is trying to manage chaos and a losing hand simultaneously,” he said. “Russia is slowly pushing … [to] begin the process of reaching a point where they’re negotiating the terms under which the [Turkish military] leaves Syria.”
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