Russia has long backed the regime in Damascus, while Turkey supports Syrian rebel groups, and views the US-backed Kurds, who maintain a semi-autonomous administration in northeast Syria, as heavily linked to Kurdish “terrorists” at home.
What was the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting and what could a potential rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara bring for the Kurds, who have for months been under threat of a Turkish ground operation?
Why did the governments meet?
Before the start of Syria’s war in 2011, Ankara was a privileged political and economic partner of Damascus and the two countries’ presidents enjoyed a friendly relationship.
But the conflict, which began with the brutal suppression of anti-government protests before escalating to pull in foreign powers, has hugely strained relations between the neighboring countries.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became a fierce opponent of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and offered unwavering support to Syria’s political opposition and rebel groups as nearly four million refugees crossed into the NATO member’s territory.
A hint of reconciliation came in 2021 when the two countries’ foreign ministers shared an informal exchange on the sidelines of a regional summit.
Turkey’s foreign minister in August called for reconciliation between Assad and rebel groups, and Turkey’s intelligence chief has visited Damascus.
President Erdogan, who in recent years repeatedly called Assad an “assassin,” spoke in November of a “possible” meeting with his Syrian counterpart.
Analysts say Russia is playing a crucial role in bringing Ankara and Damascus closer together, in part because Syria’s Kurds are backed by Washington.
Why meet now?
Moscow said Wednesday’s trilateral discussions focused on “ways to resolve the Syrian crisis and the refugee issue”, as well as “joint efforts to combat extremist groups.”
Moscow and Damascus stressed the need to “continue the dialogue.”
Bassam Abu Abdullah of the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies told AFP talks between Ankara and Damascus were upgraded from the security level to a ministerial setting because of “developments related to the Turkish military operation which was planned in the north, and was prevented by Moscow.”
Turkey has lately launched multiple air strikes against Syria’s Kurds and repeatedly threatened a ground offensive — one that would be its fourth since 2016.
This meeting of defense ministers implies “that any work on the ground must be carefully coordinated between the three parties,” Abdullah added.
The semi-autonomous Kurdish administration controls large areas of northern and eastern Syria, along with the country’s most important oil fields.
Damascus, which wants to see these lands returned to government control, has led rounds of intermittent talks with the Kurds but all have failed.
Nick Heras of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy said Turkey’s upcoming 2023 presidential elections are hardening Ankara’s stance.
“Erdogan is under intense political pressure to conduct a military operation in Syria, and to relocate as many Syrians as possible from Turkey back into Syria,” he said.
What scenarios face the Kurds?
The choices open to the Kurds — the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the outfit that defeated the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria — all appear difficult.
Fabrice Balanche, a lecturer at the University Lumiere Lyon 2, told AFP the three countries’ “immediate objective” is to “eliminate the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
Ankara wants “to eliminate the ‘Kurdish threat’ and quite simply drive out the Kurdish population from northern Syria,” he said.
He added that for Moscow “it is about eliminating an ally of the United States… and thus strengthening its ally Bashar al-Assad”, while for Damascus “it is a question of recovering this territory and especially its oil wealth.”
Assad would also want to see Turkey “neutralize” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise which controls parts of Idlib province in the country’s northwest, according to Balanche.
The academic said that if Kurdish forces refuse Ankara’s demand to withdraw to a distance of 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border, Wednesday’s tripartite meeting in Moscow will constitute a precursor to a “Turkish invasion.”
“The Turkish offensive is only a matter of time. Erdogan needs a victory against the Kurds in Syria as part of his election campaign,” he said.
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