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Turkey-Syria reconciliation: Ankara wants to play host for next top meeting

Turkish and Syrian foreign ministers may meet in Ankara as part of reconciliation talks but the latter prefers another country or Moscow
Demonstrators raise Syrian opposition flags and placards as they rally against a potential rapprochement between Ankara and the Syrian regime, on December 30, 2022, in the opposition-held city of al-Bab, on the border with Turkey (AFP)
Demonstrators rally against a potential rapprochement between Ankara and the Syrian government, on 30 December 2022, in the city of al-Bab, on the Turkish border (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Istanbul

Turkey is pushing the Syrian government to send its foreign minister to Ankara for the second high-level meeting between the two countries in 11 years, two sources familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye. 

The Turkish and Syrian defence ministers, along with their Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, met in Moscow last month, elevating contacts that had previously been held on a strictly intelligence level in an attempt to repair bilateral relations. 

The Turkish and Syrian governments have been foes since 2011, when Turkey became a supporter of the revolutionary movement against President Bashar al-Assad.

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Over the decade since, Turkey has backed some Syrian rebel groups and intervened in northern Syria, where it continues to deploy troops.

With Turkey due to hold presidential elections in June, many observers have speculated that Ankara is aiming to repair its relationship with Damascus to show voters that it can return some of the nearly four million Syrian refugees living in the country.

Two Turkish sources with knowledge said that a meeting between the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad wasn’t likely before the last week of January.

The sources said that the time and place were still being discussed by the parties, but Turkey was trying to convince the Syrian government to send its minister to Ankara.

They added that Damascus could be convinced to do so if the Russians put enough pressure on the Syrian government, which prefers the meeting to take place in Moscow or in a third country. 

Too early for Erdogan-Assad meeting

Middle East Eye reported earlier this month that no deals have been made during the first high-level meetings between the two countries, yet the calibre of the meetings continue to grow under Russian pressure.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that he may meet Bashar Al-Assad in a trilateral setting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin in coming months. 

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Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said in televised remarks last week that it was too early to speak about the timing of an Erdogan-Assad meeting as Ankara expects Damascus to take steps in counterrrorism and refugees. 

"We have made progress towards holding a meeting in Turkey in February," said separate unnamed sources speaking to DW Turkish on Thursday. “It will be one of the most critical developments in the process and will be the continuation of all the steps Turkey has taken for regional peace in the last period."

One Turkish source with knowledge of the negotiations in Moscow told MEE earlier this month that Turkey had already rejected one of Damascus's core demands: designating all Syrian rebel groups as terrorists. 

The source added that the Syrians didn't appear willing to work against Syrian Kurdish affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been waging a decades-long war against the Turkish state.

Turkey has been calling on Damascus to create a 30km-deep zone along the Turkish border that would be free of groups that Ankara accuses of being part of the PKK or affiliated with it, such as the People's Protection Units militia (YPG) and its political arm, the PYD.

Ankara also wants Syria to help manage the return of at least one million Syrian refugees.

However, Damascus has shown little appetite to comply, and instead asked Turkey to immediately withdraw from Syrian territory as a precondition for beginning talks.

That precondition was lifted after Russia, Assad's key ally, placed heavy pressure on Damascus to engage with Ankara, sources told MEE.

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