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Ankara is paying great attention to the security problems germinating in the southern borders of Turkey. This issue has become especially important for Turkey, given that it is on the eve of its presidential and parliamentary elections, which are to be held in June this year.

Interestingly, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to solve the problem posed by Syrian Kurds by combining force with the possibility of normalizing relations with Syria. Back in December of last year, he proposed to hold a meeting between the presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Syria. According to Erdogan, this meeting should be after negotiations take place between head Defense Ministers, head Foreign Affairs Ministers, as well as heads of intelligence services of the three countries.

By all accounts, Russia welcomes Erdogan’s proposal. According to Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Moscow is in contact with Damascus on this issue.

According to Reuters, however, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in no hurry to meet with Erdogan. He believes that the President of Turkey will try to increase his rating on the eve of the elections by normalizing relations with Syria. At the same time, Damascus has repeatedly emphasized that the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria is a necessary condition for the normalization of Syria-Turkey relations.

Reuters, citing a source in the Turkish leadership, reported that Russia, Turkey, and Syria are planning to hold a joint meeting between their Foreign Affairs Ministers in January. According to Turkish correspondents, the next meeting of the Ministers of Defense of Turkey and Syria will be held in February.

The parties of upcoming the negotiations will most likely discuss the problem of refugees. Turkey supports returning Syrians to their homeland. The solution to this issue is especially important in the context of the elections scheduled for June. Currently, there are 3.7 million refugees residing in Turkey, which creates an additional burden on the Turkish economy.

Additionally, the parties will discuss not only Turkey’s possible operations in Syria, but also the problem of Idlib, in which the pro-Turkish opposition retains its presence in. Most likely, the Kurdish issue will be at the forefront of all discussions, in addition to the possible extension of the 30-kilometer zone along the Syria-Turkey border.

There is a possibility that Ankara will try to expand the buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border, although the Turks were previously unable to completely control the 30-kilometer zone. It must be understood that even if the security zone were to be expanded, the Turkish units deployed in it may be attacked by the Syrian Kurds.

Though negotiations between Moscow, Ankara, and Damascus are important, maintaining dialogue with the Kurds in Syria is also necessary. In particular, it seems important to convince Syrian Kurds to avoid any Turkish provocation that can slide into further retaliatory measures. This could help stop a possible military operation, which means saving lives, preventing a new humanitarian crisis, and creating a positive atmosphere for successful negotiations between Moscow, Ankara, and Damascus.

As representatives of the Russian expert community have repeatedly noted, the Syrian government should work on reintegrating economic ties, decentralizing the government structure, and incorporating local elites into a vertical national power structure. Perhaps a possible solution to the Kurdish problem lies therein. If the interests of the Kurds are not taken into account, we can expect an increase in their activity, which can complicate negotiations with Ankara.

However, a new Turkish ground operation against the Kurds could negate any negotiating efforts. It is worth recalling that back in December of last year, talks were held in Moscow between the defense ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Syria. This was the first meeting in 11 years between the heads of the defense departments of Damascus and Ankara.

As Al-Watan reports, the highlight of the talks was the agreement on the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Syria, citing sources in Damascus. Even if it is true, we can expect that Turkey will finally abandon its intentions to conduct a ground operation soon.

Among other things, the statement of Ibrahim Kalin, the official representative of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hints at this. On January 14, he confirmed that Ankara could launch a military operation in northern Syria at any moment. Days before the December talks between Ministers of Defense, Erdogan said that in 2023 Turkey plans to “determinedly continue to implement a strategy of destroying terror” on its southern borders.

He drew special attention to the need to “close the gaps in 30-kilometer-deep security line” to eliminate the threats posed by the Kurdish troops. According to him, Ankara will move to a new phase in their struggle to destroy all the resources and infrastructure that the Syrian Kurds receive, including their armaments. By the way, back in November 2022, the Turkish Armed Forces launched airstrikes in the northern areas of Syria as part of Operation Claw-Sword.

Avoiding a new round of violence is ultimately in the interests of all the players involved in resolving the Syrian problem. Effective negotiations and convincing the Turkish side that there is no need to start a military operation is an important step toward a Syrian settlement.

From our partner RIAC

Ivan Bocharov
Ivan Bocharov
Program Assistant at the Russian International Affairs Council