Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in Moscow on March 14, 2023, for talks with his Russian counterpart—bringing along a representative delegation (almost all the key ministers in the government: foreign affairs, defense, economy, etc.), which is indicative of the numerous issues on the Russian-Syrian agenda.
Besides, the arrival of the Syrian president and his delegation coincided with technical talks between the deputy foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, Syria and Turkey, which were to have taken place on March 15-16 and were intended to pave the way for a meeting of the foreign ministers. The talks have been postponed for “a technical reason.”. Coincidentally or intentionally, Assad’s visit also concurred with the 12th anniversary of the protests that broke out in Syria to turn into a bloody civil war with numerous external forces involved.
The Syrian president’s visit to Russia is noteworthy, primarily because it takes place against the backdrop of very important changes and events in his region.
The end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 brought about many diplomatic surprises in the Middle East. For the most part, these were logical sequels to the painstaking diplomatic effort of the countries involved and to the major transformative processes unfolding in recent years, but kicked off back in 2010, inevitably leading to a new regional system of relations. Yet, it is the events of recent months that point to dawning trends, which, if properly developed, can lead to meaningful results.
So, late in December 2022, the defense and intelligence ministers of Russia, Syria and Turkey met in Moscow. The meeting marked a beginning of the gradual buildup of relations between Ankara and Damascus as well as an onset of re-branded regional collaboration to facilitate the settlement of the Syrian crisis. The Syrian-Turkish reconciliation is indispensable to resolving the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic.
The tragic earthquake of February 2023 accelerated the restoration of Syria’s ties with Arab states in the region. The UAE foreign minister was among the first to visit Damascus, the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt visited Syria for the first time in the years of conflict, and the Egyptian president had his first telephone conversation with his Syrian peer. Saudi Arabia, for the first time sent, several planes with humanitarian aid to Syria, whereas Bashar Assad visited Oman for the first time since the inception of the civil war.
Also worth mentioning are the March 13 agreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the two countries deciding to restore diplomatic relations and develop cooperation. Given that Tehran is one of Damascus’ key partners and provided that Iranian-Saudi relations develop in a positive direction (or at least in a non-confrontational way), this will likely have a positive impact on Syrian-Saudi relations as well. And Riyadh’s decision, in turn, will affect other states in the region. Also worthy of note in this vein is the important statement of the Saudi foreign minister at the Munich Security Conference, who claimed that isolation and the policy of status quo do not work with regard to Syria and a dialogue with Damascus will be necessary sooner or later.
Also important is the fact that the U.S. still apparently has no interest in Syria, while its focus on the Middle East keeps shrinking. With a rather substantial military presence and operational capabilities in the region, Washington is now less and less willing to get involved in regional issues. This logically leads to the inevitably growing autonomy and activity of regional states. First of all, this concerns Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Washington’s traditional partners in the region are now pursuing a more autonomous policy as compared to that of 8-10 years ago, promoting their national interests, diversifying their portfolios of partnerships and hedging their risks.
All this contributes to a more favorable environment emerging with a reduced potential for conflict in the region, which means good chances for Syria to resolve its problems.
Traditionally, bilateral relations are on the agenda of meetings between heads of state. In Syria’s case, however, it is always necessary to address a range of humanitarian and socio-economic concerns, to seek compromises and concessions in order to move off deadlock. Especially under today’s circumstances, with Syrian-Turkish normalization looming ahead, albeit requiring the most cautious and balanced approach.
According to the Syrian president, the talks and the meeting of the Russian-Syrian intergovernmental commission have been vastly different this time. “The latter focused … on investment projects and on the agreement to be signed. It deals with 40 specific investment projects in energy, electricity, oil, transportation, housing, industry-related and many other areas, but with clearly defined projects,” said Mr. Assad. If these projects are brought to fruition, they can make a significant contribution to the gradual recovery of the Syrian economy.
Today, Syria needs humanitarian and economic aid more than ever before, especially after the catastrophic earthquake in February 2023. Apart from regular humanitarian shipments to Syria, the Russian Red Cross deployed a mobile medical aid station in Latakia in early March, while a Russian multipurpose hospital staffed with a multidisciplinary team of doctors from the Federal Center for Disaster Medicine under the Russian Ministry of Health kickstarted its operations in Aleppo. During the talks, Vladimir Putin assured his Syrian counterpart that Russia would keep providing its assistance.
Meanwhile, the temporary six-month withdrawal of humanitarian goods for Syria from U.S. sanctions does not help improving the situation with the fuel crisis anyway. There is a shortage of gasoline for ambulances, power generators, machinery and tractors to clear away the rubble, let alone for full-scale reconstruction. In this background, warmer relations between Syria and other Arab states, accelerated by the earthquake, are especially important. Humanitarian and economic aid from the Gulf states is already making a difference as it helps overcoming the crisis, and its sustained nature could precipitate the country’s economic recovery. In this environment, Moscow has long contributed to the rebuilding of Damascus’ relations with its neighbors and Arab nations, for whom Syria’s reintegration into the regional economy is an important element of their policy. In this challenging political landscape, the negotiations between Moscow and Damascus sometimes stall because the latter, understanding that normalization will be gradual but inevitable (from its perspective), is not too keen on making compromises and concessions.
Another sensitive subject is the normalization of relations between Damascus and Ankara. Despite general agreements and plans of the Russian and Turkish presidents to resume dialogue with Damascus, both Syria and Turkey follow their own logic in this delicate matter. After the talks with Vladimir Putin, in his interview for RIA Novosti, Bashar Assad reiterated his key point: the meeting with Mr. Erdogan is possible only “when Turkey is clearly and unambiguously ready, without any uncertainties or caveats, for a full withdrawal [of the Turkish military] from Syria, for putting an end to the support of terrorists and getting back to the status quo that had existed prior to the commencement of hostilities in Syria.” Ankara has its own priorities and logic: the normalization of relations with Syria shall include:
- resolving the Kurdish issue and defining the status of the Kurdish armed detachments which are viewed by Turkey as terrorists;
- the return of Syrian refugees to their homes;
- the political process, reforms and reconciliation with the opposition.
Overcoming these points of discord is a complicated process. Ankara will not withdraw its armed forces from Syria without guarantees on its priority issues, primarily on the solution of the Kurdish problem. The latter cannot be solved, however, as long as the U.S. military are deployed in northeastern Syria.
As for the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey (about 3.5 million people), despite the repeated statements by both Moscow and Damascus, they are not ready for the mass-scale return of Syrians to their homes for several serious reasons:
- The difficult socio-economic situation in Syria. In the short term, the Syrian government does not have the appropriate infrastructure and sufficient economic resources to accommodate large numbers of returning refugees.
- The cost of supporting and reintegrating millions of refugees would place an unsustainable burden on Syria’s weak economy and could lead to its collapse.
- Anti-government sentiments persist among those refugees, so compact residence of marginalized masses would pose risks of increased instability and protests, fueling the black market and threatening social stability.
- The regions of Syria along the border with Turkey are not ready for the adaptation and integration of new returnees.
In addition, there is skepticism among scholars about the prospects for a political process in Syria. Damascus is not ready to make concessions to the Syrian opposition, because it views most of its representatives as either terrorists or people unhinged from reality and promoting the interests of other countries. Moreover, after 12 years of war and the emergent normalization processes with the countries of the region, Damascus has no motivation to make concessions. To make things even worse, in the run-up to the May elections in Turkey, Syria is aware that progress in the Syrian-Turkish normalization can help Erdogan score extra points. That is probably why Assad is in no hurry to meet with Erdogan.
As a mediator in Syrian-Turkish normalization, Russia is trying to provide acceptable conditions for moving forward. Today, it is clear that this is an extremely difficult and long process, given the fact that both Damascus and Ankara have a number of serious demands for each other. So, the challenge currently faced by Moscow is to convince the two sides to start the negotiation process without any preconditions. Thus, the technical talks scheduled for March 16 by the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey in Moscow were indefinitely postponed for “technical reasons.” Such a decision was possibly due to the visit of Assad to Moscow and made dependent on the results of his negotiations with Mr. Putin. On March 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov not only met with his Syrian colleague but also had a telephone conversation with the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. It is quite possible that the sides are not yet ready for a meeting on this level. Various reasons for the postponement of the talks are possible, but this fact alone does not negate the shift toward normalizing Syrian-Turkish relations that has begun already now.
While Assad’s visit to Moscow did not yield breakthrough agreements, it took place at a very opportune time, having confirmed the importance of the Syrian dossier for Russia and for the region, contrary to the many claims that Moscow is slackening its focus on Syria. Russia is still fostering economic cooperation with Damascus, while continuing its mediation towards internal reconciliation between the feuding groups in Syria and normalization of Damascus’ relationships with the neighboring Arab nations. Moscow goes on looking for new approaches to the conflict settlement by launching new regional tracks, such as the Russia-Iran-Syria-Turkey format, capable of introducing a new positive dynamic. Taking other regional (Iranian-Saudi, Turkish-Saudi normalization, etc.) and global processes (transformation of the unipolar world, the emergence of new regional centers of power, the development of the multi-pronged approach, etc.) into consideration, the whole of it probably creates the most favorable environment for progress on the Syrian diplomatic front over the past 10 years.
From our partner RIAC