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Turkish and Syrian spymasters held multiple meetings in Damascus: Report

Russia reportedly nudging its Syrian ally and Turkey closer together as it looks to shore up its position amid fighting in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (2nd L), Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (2nd R) and Turkish Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan at the Kremlin in Moscow on 24 August 2018 (AFP)

Turkey's intelligence chief has held multiple meetings with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus over the past few weeks, according to a report from Reuters on Thursday.

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

The move reportedly comes at the behest of Russia, which hopes to secure its position in Syria as it girds itself for continued conflict in Ukraine and the need to potentially redeploy troops from the Middle East. 

Turkey has recently stepped up its attacks on Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria and has threatened a new invasion of the country. In August, Turkish air strikes on a border post run by Syrian government forces killed 17 fighters. 

Russia's 2015 military intervention in Syria is widely credited with turning the tide of the civil war in favour of Moscow's ally, Bashar al-Assad. Syria helped Russia bill itself as an alternative power to the US in the region, and provided it with key warm water ports in the Mediterranean.

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When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, Turkey backed the Syrian opposition. Today, it continues to support rebel groups in their last bastion of territory in northwest Syria. 

'Always dialogue'

More recently, Turkey's President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has indicated a new willingness to accept Assad as leader of Syria, saying in August that Turkey was not seeking his removal. He also suggested there was dialogue ongoing between Ankara and Damascus.

"You have to accept that you cannot cut the political dialogue and diplomacy between the states,” he said. “There should always be such dialogues.”

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Over the years, Turkey has launched several invasions into northern Syria. Along with its local military proxies it is believed to control about 10 percent of Syrian territory, stretching along Turkey's southern border with the country.

The recent discussions between Turkey’s Fidan and Syrian spymaster Mamlouk have reportedly centred on laying the groundwork for a potential meeting between the two countries' foreign ministers, according to a senior Turkish official and a Turkish security source.

"Russia wants Syria and Turkey to overcome their problems and achieve certain agreements... which are in the interest of everyone, both Turkey and Syria," the Turkish official told Reuters.

One obstacle has been Turkey's request to include Syrian rebels in any talks with Damascus, the official added.

Iran concerns

One of Turkey’s main concerns is seeing Iranian backed-forces fill any void left by Russian troops who have been pulled out of the Middle Eastern country to address manpower shortages in Ukraine.

Russia is believed to have already pulled some troops from Syria, prompting the Kremlin to ask Turkey to normalise ties with Assad and "accelerate a political solution" in the country.

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A Damascus-allied source told Reuters that Russia had also asked Syria to enter talks with Ankara as Moscow seeks to shore up the position of its ally in the event it must redeploy forces to Ukraine.

A senior Turkish official said neither Russia nor Turkey wanted to see Iranian or Iran-backed forces, which already control large swathes of Syria, take the place of departing Russian troops.

Fidan travelled to Syria as recently as August to discuss the issues with his Syrian counterpart.

An unnamed regional source aligned with Damascus and quoted by Reuters said Turkish-Syrian relations had begun to thaw and were moving towards a stage of "creating a climate for understanding".

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