US warns against Turkish rapprochement with Syria

A State Department Spokesperson strongly denounced reconciliation by any party with Damascus, as, it seems, Turkey is in the process of doing now
The defence ministers of Russia, Turkey and Syria met in Moscow on Wednesday, the first such talks since war broke out in Syria (Photo: AP)
The defence ministers of Russia, Turkey and Syria met in Moscow on Wednesday, the first such talks since war broke out in Syria (Photo: AP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) The Defense Ministers of Turkey, Syria, and Russia, along with their intelligence chiefs, held what the Associated Press described as “previously unannounced talks in Moscow.”

The event on Wednesday was the first such formal, high-level political meeting between senior Turkish and Syrian officials in eleven years—since the start of the Syrian civil war.

In key respects, the meeting was a success for Moscow, which has long pressed for such a reconciliation.

Like the US, Turkey initially supported the Syrian opposition to the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad. But whereas the US was careful to avoid supporting Islamic extremists, Turkey had no such inhibition. In key respects, it was the strongest supporter of Assad’s opposition.

It once seemed that Assad might be overthrown, as happened with the regimes in Libya, Egypt, and Sudan. But that is no longer so. Since 2015, when Russia’s military intervention in support of Assad began, it has increasingly seemed that he will remain in power. Thus, support for the Syrian opposition has increasingly appeared to be of limited utility.

More immediately, Wednesday’s meeting followed a steady drumbeat of Turkish threats to launch a cross-border ground assault into Syria, targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG.)

The YPG forms the leadership, and core, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S., and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. The U.S., however, views the YPG as separate and distinct from the PKK.

The talks among Turkey, Russia, and Syria carry the disturbing prospect of a possible deal-in-the-making: Turkey accepts the Syrian regime and drops its support for the Syrian opposition, while Moscow and Damascus give Ankara a free hand against the Kurds in Syria. Perhaps such a deal, if it were to materialize, would include increased Turkish support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Whatever the case may be, a State Department Spokesperson, in a statement to Kurdistan 24, strongly denounced reconciliation by any party with Damascus, as, it seems, Turkey is in the process of doing now.

“Our policy has not changed,” the Spokesperson stated. “We do not support countries upgrading their relations or expressing support to rehabilitate the brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad.”

Prelude to Defense Ministers’ Meeting

On Dec. 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone. Their conversation followed on talks in Istanbul on Dec. 8-9 between the Russian and Turkish Deputy Foreign Ministers.

On Dec. 15, Erdogan proposed a series of meetings between Turkish and Russian officials, culminating in a tripartite summit with Putin and Assad.

“We want Syria, Turkey, and Russia to take a step as a trio,” Erdogan said. “To do so, intelligence agencies, then ministers of defense, and finally ministers of foreign affairs should come together. Then, we, the leaders, could meet.”

On Dec. 24, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar stated in an end-of-the-year press conference that Ankara was discussing arrangements with Russia that would allow Turkey to launch a cross-border assault on the YPG.

Read More: Turkey and Russia discuss cross-border assault on Syria, as tensions rise with Kurds

Notably, there was no Russian denial of Akar’s statement, and on Dec. 25, he visited a Turkish command post near the Syrian border. There Akar threatened the YPG with a cross-border attack, prompting a strong US statement opposing his threat.

Read More: US ‘strongly’ opposes Turkish attack on Syria; calls for immediate de-escalation

And three days later, on Dec. 28, Akar, along with his intelligence chief, was in Moscow, where they held discussions with their Russian and Syrian counterparts.

Results of Defense Ministers’ Meeting

Very little has emerged publicly about the meeting, even as that is not surprising. It is worth noting, however, that the remarks of all three parties involved were positive, while the Kurdish-led administration of northeast Syria denounced it.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry explained that the talks focused on “the Syrian crisis, refugee issue and efforts for a joint struggle against all terrorist organizations on Syrian soil,” while affirming that they had been held “in a constructive atmosphere.”

Syria’s state news agency (SANA) described the agenda of the meeting in similar terms: “efforts to combat terrorism, the situation in Syria, and the question of refugees,” while affirming "the importance of continuing the joint dialogue for the sake of stability of the situation in Syria and the region.”

For its part, Russia’s Defense Ministry used the exact same language to summarize the issues covered by the “constructive meeting.”

However, the Kurdish led administration of northeast Syria, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), denounced the tripartite meeting in strong terms, as North Press Agency reported.

The AANES suggested that the meeting was related to Turkish domestic politics and aimed at consolidating Erdogan’s position in advance of Turkey’s elections, scheduled for June 2023.

But the results of the meeting would only bring more “killing” and “destruction” of Kurds, the AANES said.

The meeting also carried an enhanced risk to Syrian refugees in Turkey, which hosts over four million. “Turkey has recently accelerated efforts to increase what the state calls ‘voluntary returns,’” The Guardian reported on Thursday.

That includes “official claims that 100,000 people have been repatriated this year to countries including Syria, part of an anti-immigration push ahead of an election expected in June next year or before,” the British paper continued.

Yet Human Rights Watch "documented how Turkish authorities arrested hundreds” of people, “forcing them to sign voluntary return forms and then forcing them to cross back into Syria at gunpoint,” The Guardian revealed, underscoring the callousness, even brutality, of the Turkish measures.

US Protests Syrian Regime’s Oppression of its People and those who Accommodate it

“We urge states to carefully consider the atrocities inflicted by the Assad regime on the Syrian people over the last decade, and the regime’s continued denial of access to lifesaving humanitarian aid and security to the Syrian people,” the State Department Spokesperson told Kurdistan 24 in explaining US opposition to Wednesday’s tripartite meeting in Moscow.

“As the Syrian people continue to suffer through nearly 12 years of war, our support for a Syrian-led political solution in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 remains firm,” the Spokesperson continued. “We will continue to work with allies, partners, and the UN to ensure that a durable political solution remains within reach.”