Exclusive: With a Russian boost, Turkey and Syria intensify their contacts

  • Any normalization would reshape the decade-long war in Syria
  • Intelligence chiefs have held meetings over the past few weeks
  • Focused on Ukraine, Moscow calls for a political solution in Syria

ANKARA/BEIRUT, Sept 15 (Reuters) – Turkey’s intelligence chief has held several meetings with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus over the past few weeks, a sign of Russian efforts to encourage a thaw between states opposed to the war in Syria, officials said. said four sources. .

A regional source aligned with Damascus told Reuters that Hakan Fidan, head of Turkey‘s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk met just this week in the Syrian capital.

The contacts reflect a shift in Russian policy as Moscow prepares for a protracted conflict in Ukraine and seeks to secure its position in Syria, where its forces have backed President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, according to two Turkish officials and the regional source.

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Any normalization between Ankara and Damascus would reshape the decade-long Syrian war.

Turkish backing has been vital in supporting Syrian rebels in their last major territorial foothold in the northwest, after Assad defeated insurgency in the rest of the country, aided by Russia and Iran.

But the rapprochement faces major complications, including the fate of rebel fighters and millions of civilians, many of whom have fled northwest to escape Assad’s rule.

Turkey, a NATO member, has troops on the ground throughout the region, considered occupation forces by Assad.

During the talks, Fidan – one of President Tayyip Erdogan‘s closest confidants – and Mamlouk weighed up how the two countries’ foreign ministers could possibly meet, according to a senior Turkish official and a Turkish security source.

“Russia wants Syria and Turkey to overcome their problems and come to certain agreements (…) which are in everyone’s interest, both Turkey and Syria,” the Turkish official said.

A big challenge is Turkey’s desire to include Syrian rebels in talks with Damascus, the official added.

RUSSIAN CHANGE

Turkish security official says Russia has been gradually withdrawing some military resources from Syria to focus on Ukraine, and has asked Turkey to normalize relations with Assad to ‘accelerate a political solution’ in Syria .

The Damascus-allied source said Russia had pushed Syria to start talks as Moscow sought to define its position and that of Assad in case it had to redeploy its forces to Ukraine. Russia has suffered staggering losses on the ground in Ukraine over the past week.

The most recent meetings – including a two-day visit by Fidan to Damascus in late August – had sought to prepare the ground for higher-level sessions, the source said.

The senior Turkish official said Ankara did not want to see Iranian or Iranian-backed forces – already widely deployed in government-controlled parts of Syria – fill the gaps left by Russian withdrawals.

Turkey’s security official said Russia also does not want to see Iranian influence expand as it scales back its presence.

A diplomat based in the region says Russia withdrew a limited number of troops from southern Syria in early summer, particularly in areas along the border with Israel which were later filled by the forces. aligned with Iran.

While Fidan and Mamlouk have spoken to each other intermittently over the past two years, the pace and timing of recent meetings suggests a new urgency for contact.

The regional source allied with Damascus and a second senior pro-Assad source in the Middle East said Turkish-Syrian contacts had made a lot of progress, without giving details.

A third Damascus-aligned regional source said Turkish-Syrian relations had begun to thaw and were moving towards a stage of “creating a climate conducive to understanding”.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the contacts, which have not been publicly disclosed.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Turkey’s MIT declined to comment, and the Foreign Ministry did not immediately comment. Syria’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to questions emailed by Reuters.

THE UNTHINKABLE BECOMES THINKABLE

Turkish-Syrian rapprochement seemed unthinkable earlier in the Syrian conflict, which escalated into an uprising against Assad in 2011, killing hundreds of thousands of people, attracting many foreign powers and splitting the country apart.

Erdogan called Assad a terrorist and said there could be no peace in Syria with him in power, while Assad called Erdogan a thief for “stealing” Syrian land.

But in an apparent change of tone last month, Erdogan said he could never rule out dialogue and diplomacy with Syria. Read more

Erdogan faces a tight election next year, in which a key issue will be repatriating some of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Read more

The Turkish-Syrian contacts come in the context of a wave of meetings between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, including one scheduled for Friday in Uzbekistan.

In July, Turkey helped broker a UN-backed deal that lifted the blockade on grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that had prevailed since Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24.

After a recent visit to Moscow, Erdogan said Putin suggested Turkey cooperate with Damascus along their common border, where Ankara has carried out several offensives in areas where Syrian Kurdish groups have carved out autonomy for themselves since 2011.

Turkey has threatened to launch a new offensive against US-backed Kurdish forces, which Ankara considers a threat to national security. Russia has signaled its opposition to such an incursion.

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Reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and by Laila Bassam and Maya Gebeily in Beirut; written by Tom Perry; edited by Jonathan Spicer and Mark Heinrich

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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