Russia can help achieve peace in a long-running Middle East conflict

Estimated read time 12 min read

Moscow is likely to play a significant role in the budding dialogue between Türkiye and Syria

It has been almost 12 years since relations between Türkiye and Syria took a dramatic turn for the worse. Once good friends, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who was prime minister back then) and Bashar Assad quickly became sworn enemies, and the border between their countries turned into a permanent hotspot of instability. This conflict became yet another consequence of the Arab Spring, which swept through the Middle East and North Africa like a storm in 2011.

However, after years of confrontation, Russia, which came to the Syrian president’s aid in 2015 and prevented the legitimate authorities from falling to the onslaught of opposition and terrorist groups financed and supported from abroad, helped Damascus restore relations with many countries. First and foremost, Moscow facilitated the improvement of relations between Syria and the United Arab Emirates, which, unlike Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, took a more moderate stance. Then, through the joint efforts of the UAE and Russia, official Damascus returned to the “Arab fold” – the Arab League – and began normalizing relations with other Arab countries.

In 2023, Moscow made efforts to establish a dialogue between Ankara and Damascus. On April 25, 2023, four-way talks were held in Moscow between the defense ministers of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Türkiye. They discussed practical steps to strengthen security in Syria and normalize Syrian-Turkish relations. On July 9 of the same year, the Russian president’s special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, announced that the leaders of Syria and Türkiye could hold a meeting in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin upon the completion of work on a roadmap for resolving the obstacles facing Syrian-Turkish relations. However, in a later interview with Sky News Arabia, Assad ruled out the possibility of negotiations with Erdogan while Turkish troops were present on Syrian territory, thereby halting the “thawing” process. 

However, a year later, on June 26, 2024 Assad told Lavrentyev that Damascus is “open to all initiatives aimed at improving relations with Türkiye, if this process is based on respect for sovereignty and the Syrian state’s desire to restore its authority over the entire territory of the country.” In response, Erdogan stated, “We are open to initiatives for normalization with Syria. There are no reasons not to establish diplomatic relations. We can act together, as in the past. We have no intention of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs. You know that we used to be friends with Assad’s family. I see no reason not to renew our friendship.”

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On June 30, a government source in Damascus informed the newspaper Al Watan that Baghdad would become the venue for talks between Syria and Türkiye aimed at normalizing bilateral relations. According to the newspaper, the Turkish side requested that Moscow and Baghdad “be present at the table where bilateral dialogue will take place away from the media.” The parties are expected to “discuss all details to return relations between the two neighbors to normalcy, to their previous level.” The rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus has received support from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Russia, China, and Iran also encourage the parties to engage in dialogue to establish bilateral ties, writes Al Watan. 

Why did Erdogan and Assad fall out? 

The conflict between Türkiye and Syria, which began in 2012, has become one of the most complex and prolonged modern international confrontations. This conflict encompasses various aspects, including territorial disputes, ethnic and religious contradictions, the struggle for regional influence, and the involvement of multiple external players.

It began against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, which erupted in 2011. On June 14, 2012, 73 officers of the Syrian army, including seven generals and 20 senior officers who had defected from the government army, as well as their families (a total of 202 people), arrived in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, seeking political asylum. Although there was no official confirmation from the Turkish authorities, this event was very negatively received in Damascus. 

The official date of the conflict’s beginning is October 3, 2012, when Türkiye opened fire on Syrian territory in response to a border incident in which artillery shells killed five people. Since then, Türkiye has actively supported the Syrian opposition, aiming to overthrow Assad. This caused tension between the two countries, especially considering that Türkiye took in Syrian refugees and allowed opposition forces to use its territory for operations against the Syrian regime. Türkiye accused the Syrian regime of violating its borders and struck Syrian positions.

Between 2014 and 2016, the situation worsened with the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Syria and Iraq. Türkiye launched Operation Euphrates Shield against IS and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Conflicts with Kurdish groups, which Türkiye considers terrorist organizations linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also intensified.

From 2017 to 2019, Türkiye conducted Operation Olive Branch against Kurdish forces in the northern Syrian city of Afrin and then Operation Peace Spring in northeastern Syria to create a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkish forces secured strategically important regions in Syria, drawing international condemnation. However, Ankara considered its actions legitimate, relying on the Adana Agreement between Türkiye and Syria, signed in 1998, which granted Türkiye the right to send ground troops into Syrian territory if Syria allowed activities threatening Türkiye’s security and stability.

From 2020 to 2024, the humanitarian situation in Idlib in northeastern Syria, deteriorated, where Türkiye supported opposition forces against the advance of the Syrian army. Clashes with Syrian government forces continued, causing numerous civilian casualties and exacerbating the refugee crisis.

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Although Turkish authorities claim that the conflict with Syria is a matter of security, it is also related to Türkiye’s foreign policy strategy. The Turkish leader and his Justice and Development Party are considered proponents of political Islam, which explains Ankara’s actions and reactions to the events of the Arab Spring.

The wave of revolutions and coups in 2010-2011 led to the collapse of secular regimes in many countries in the region and initially paved the way for the rise of political Islamists. Türkiye, along with Qatar, recognized this and decided to support these trends, hoping it would allow them to expand and strengthen their influence in the region.

However, over time, there was a rollback. In Egypt, the military returned to power, while in Tunisia, the secular president limited the influence of Islamists, and in many other countries, supporters of political Islam failed to manage state governance and develop foreign and domestic policies that met contemporary challenges. Ankara realized this and began to restore its ties with current governments in the region, as regional and global processes necessitated a reassessment of foreign policy strategies. 

Syria is now both a foreign and domestic issue for Türkiye

Over the years of the Syrian conflict, a significant portion of the population fled the country. A large number of these refugees ended up in Türkiye. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of mid-2024, there are approximately 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees in Türkiye. This makes Türkiye the country with the highest number of Syrian refugees in the world.

The reception of such a large number of refugees has had a significant impact on Türkiye’s economy. Since 2011, Türkiye has spent over $40 billion on humanitarian aid, healthcare, education, and infrastructure for refugees. The Turkish government claims that the cost per Syrian refugee amounts to about $8,000 per year.

The massive influx of Syrian refugees has led to significant social and demographic changes in Türkiye. Most refugees live in major cities such as Istanbul, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Izmir. Approximately 98% of Syrian refugees live outside of refugee camps, integrating into local communities. 

The burden on the country’s education system has also increased significantly. More than 1 million Syrian children need education, and the Turkish government strives to ensure their access to schools. However, despite efforts, around 400,000 Syrian children remain out of school.

The integration of Syrian refugees into Turkish society is accompanied by numerous challenges. Language barriers, cultural differences, and limited employment opportunities create tension between the local population and refugees. According to surveys, many Turks are concerned about the economic and social consequences of the presence of a large number of refugees. 

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The international community provides substantial financial support to Türkiye to help Syrian refugees. The European Union, in particular, allocated more than €6 billion under the 2016 agreement to support Türkiye in managing the migration crisis. However, despite international assistance, Türkiye continues to face enormous challenges in ensuring the wellbeing and integration of Syrian refugees.

The refugee factor already influences domestic political processes. The defeat of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the municipal elections on March 31 of this year was due not only to the difficult economic situation but also to the growing public discontent over the mass influx of refugees, including those from Syria. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won the local elections, actively uses the refugee card in its struggle with the authorities.

Anti-refugee riots

Late last month, immediately after the news emerged from the Al-Watan newspaper about the possible normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus, unrest broke out across the country. It all began late on the evening of June 30 in the city of Kayseri in the central province of the same name. This happened after local media reported the alleged rape of a seven-year-old girl by a 26-year-old Syrian. Outraged residents overturned cars, attacked migrants, and called for the deportation of all refugees from Türkiye. The rioters chanted anti-government slogans and demanded Erdogan’s resignation. 

The protests later spread to Alanya, Antalya, Konya, Istanbul, Ankara, Bursa, and other major cities. In a statement on July 2 on social media, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced the arrest of 474 riot participants. Of these, 285, he said, had criminal records. The authorities have already stated that these are provocations that could lead to destructive consequences. Indeed, it is not that simple in all these matters.

For example, the leader of CHP, Ozgur Ozel, stated that he expects to meet with Syrian President Assad in Syria within a month or a month and a half. “We support backdoor diplomacy with Assad, the results are quite positive. In the next month or month and a half – if it works out, I can’t give guarantees – I will meet with Assad. Maybe before that, I will even meet with the Turkish Foreign Minister and President Erdogan,” Ozel said on June 29 in an interview with journalist Fatih Altayli.

Russia wants peace between Türkiye and Syria

Although the conflict between Ankara and Damascus is deep and multifaceted, there is still a chance that dialogue between the countries will be established soon. This is largely due to the diplomatic efforts of Moscow, which is interested in resolving the Syrian crisis once and for all. However, both the pro-Western opposition in Türkiye and Washington and its allies will do everything possible to prevent the normalization of relations between Erdogan and Assad. For the Turkish opposition, this would mean losing an effective tool to pressure the authorities, and for Washington and its allies, another foreign policy failure.

Moscow is preparing the parties for conflict resolution at various levels, a process that included a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart on July 3 in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on the eve of the SCO summit, where the issue of normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus was likely discussed. This was confirmed by a statement from Erdogan to journalists on board his plane returning from Kazakhstan. He said, “Türkiye will consistently advocate for a prosperous and unified Syria that has adopted a new social contract based on justice, dignity, and inclusiveness.”

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The restoration of ties between Ankara and Damascus is not a concern for countries but for terrorist groups like PKK/PYD/YPG and IS, according to Erodgan. He stated that he could invite the Russian and Syrian leaders to Türkiye to discuss the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus.

Commenting on the activities of terrorist organizations operating in northern Syria, he emphasized that Türkiye “will not allow the creation of a terrorist state in the region.” He also expressed regret over the lack of support from NATO allies in Türkiye’s fight against terrorist organizations. He stressed the inadmissibility of NATO allies aiding terrorist organizations that threaten Türkiye’s national security. This message was primarily directed at the West, which supports Kurdish armed groups that are in a permanent state of conflict with Türkiye.

Indeed, if Ankara and Damascus normalize relations, they will be able to jointly eliminate the Kurdish groups supported by Washington and Brussels, which pose a threat to both Türkiye’s security and Syria’s territorial integrity. For Russia, this would be another diplomatic victory, strengthening its status as a reliable partner in the region that achieves its goals.

In summary, it should be noted that we are likely to witness the normalization of relations between Türkiye and Syria in the near future, as this is now beneficial and necessary to both sides. This process will likely enter an active phase following Putin’s planned visit to Türkiye, where he has been eagerly awaited. Moscow is demonstrating pragmatism and a focus on building mutually beneficial dialogue that takes into account the national interests of all parties, unlike Washington, for whom its own interests are paramount.

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