Turkey and Syria are currently on a path toward rapprochement, in the culmination of a significant yet challenging long-term process that has the potential to transform Syria’s northern borderland. In December 2022, a pivotal meeting between Russia, Turkey, and Syria at the level of defense ministers, accompanied by their respective security chiefs, took place in Moscow, kickstarting the process of rapprochement. The most recent meeting was on May 10, 2023, at the level of foreign ministers; this meeting included Iran, which had joined the group after the first meeting. Participants have agreed to continue the talks on the level of deputy or assistant foreign ministers in the pursuit of a “road map” that would eventually lead to the normalization of Syria–Turkey relations.
This report makes two key observations about the path toward normalization between Syria and Turkey.
First, while the current process is significant, it will not yield a holistic agreement or a treaty, nor will it trigger a just political change in Syria. Rather, the normalization process could midwife a security framework that solidifies core principles and outlines how Turkey and Syria will engage with various security, economic, and demographic challenges along their shared border. Russia and Iran would likely be the guarantors of such a deal.
Second, if the two countries achieve normalization, it would necessarily alter the status quo in northern Syria. How exactly that would unfold and in what speed is difficult to predict. Nonetheless, early indicators discussed in this report suggest possible demographic change, changes to the map of territorial control, and redistribution of economic resources, as well as security cooperation between Turkey and Syria on various matters.
There is also a possibility that the Syria-Turkey talks could stall. One issue is that there are enduring disagreements between Ankara and Damascus that might not be resolved. But another possible problem is that the issues at stake are very complex, multilayered, and internationalized. Thus, parties to the process might opt for piecemeal, unilateral fixes rather than a framework that would set the stage for a more comprehensive solution.
However, a piecemeal approach is unlikely to significantly alter the status quo, which in its current form is satisfactory neither for Turkey nor for Syria’s central authorities. A profound change will necessarily require understanding and cooperation between Turkey and Syria, backed by Iran and Russia. The possibility of a deal is reinforced by Russia’s role as a mediator, its efforts to undermine Western interests in Syria, and its objective to score a diplomatic victory by mending ties between Syria and Turkey.
This report explores the rapprochement process largely from the perspective of Syrian central authorities in Damascus. In the first section it outlines the primary factors that compelled President Bashar al-Assad to engage in direct talks with Turkey, the staunchest of the foreign supporters of his opponents. The second section outlines the parameters of a prospective deal. The report engages with key matters such as the question of Turkish military withdrawal, economic cooperation, refugee return, and security cooperation against the autonomous Kurdish entity in the northeast. In most cases, interviews conducted for this report with government officials were granted to the authors on the condition of anonymity, since they discussed sensitive matters that interviewees did not have permission to talk about publicly.
Section I: The Underlying Reasons for Engagement with Turkey
The recognition by the government in Damascus that it could not regain control of northern Syria through force alone, and that cooperation with Turkey was crucial to change the status quo, was arguably the primary catalyst for its decision to engage in negotiations with Ankara in December 2022. This realization had been gradually developing in Damascus since 2018–19, but was hastened by the Russo-Ukrainian War. That conflict undermined Russia’s dominance in Syria and significantly diminished its capacity to assist the government in reclaiming lost territories. Although the war in Ukraine bolstered Iran’s position in Syria, Tehran did not want to change the status quo, especially in the northeast. Moreover, for Iran, the status quo was more a factor of its relationship with the United States, and not its relationship with Damascus.
The Ukraine War Weakens Russia
Between 2016 and 2018, following the Russian intervention in Syria, the Syrian government experienced a resurgence. With the assistance of Russia’s military, it managed to reclaim pockets of opposition-controlled territory throughout Syria after rebels’ foreign supporters halted aid. By the end of 2018, shortly after the southern Dera’a governorate was recaptured, the focal point of the Syrian conflict shifted to the Turkish border. The presence of Turkish forces in the northwest and U.S. forces in the northeast prevented the government from capturing these areas through military means. Consequently, a process of bartering and bargaining began, primarily between Turkey and Russia, with intermittent interruptions due to military escalations, most notably Russian-backed government advancements and Turkish incursions.1
The Ukraine war disrupted Russia’s dominant position in Syria in every way. Politically, the West no longer relied on Russia for its Syrian file. Russia’s relationship with the United States in the Syrian context reached a nadir after the invasion of Ukraine, even though Moscow had started with a relatively good working relationship with the Biden administration when it came into office in 2021.2 Russia’s weakness was an opportunity for Iran to expand its presence within Syria and for Israel to exploit Russia’s distraction by ramping up its airstrikes, all of which undermined Russia’s role as a third party working to mitigate potential escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria.3 Concurrently, as Russia’s prospects in Ukraine took a turn for the worse in spring 2022, Moscow initiated the withdrawal of experienced personnel from Syria through regular rotations, and even withdrew its modern battle tanks, diminishing its combat capabilities in the region.4
The war in Ukraine presented an opportunity for Iran to expand its presence in Syria—albeit at the expense of the Syrian government, rather than the government’s adversaries.
The Ukrainian conflict also weakened Russia’s ability to assist the government in recapturing territory or exerting pressure on Turkey for negotiations. Russia was now partly dependent on Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in its war against the West. Previously, Russia had supported the Syrian government in offensives during 2017–18 and 2019–20, resulting in territorial gains against rebel groups in northwestern Syria and occasional direct confrontations between Russian and Turkish forces, and between the Syrian Army and Turkish forces.5 However, following the Ukrainian war, not only was Russia unable to escalate hostilities on the Idlib front, but it also preferred to maintain a relatively calm front line and resort to diplomacy.6 This message was conveyed to the Syrian leadership by Russia, as a senior Syrian military official confirmed to the authors.7 In essence, Russia found itself incapable and unwilling to assist the government in regaining territory—but rather more keen on reconciling Damascus with Ankara.8
The war in Ukraine presented an opportunity for Iran to expand its presence in Syria, albeit at the expense of the Syrian government, rather than the government’s adversaries. If there had been a degree of restraint that Russia imposed on Iranian activities, that was now diminished. Iran expanded its influence, driven by its own interests and potentially encouraged by Russia—as a means to spook Israel and the West. (Both Israel and the West opposed Iranian entrenchment in Syria and partly relied on Russia to limit such entrenchment.)9 Against the backdrop of Russia’s declining influence and Iran’s growing clout, Assad flew to Tehran in May 2022 to secure support for his government.10
Iran’s Changing Priorities
Assad reportedly sought to obtain Tehran’s support for what the Syrian government has referred to as “popular resistance”—armed pro-government local forces, including Arab clans. The aim of Assad’s gambit was to undermine the dominance of the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast. However, a senior Syrian military officer said that Assad was informed that Iran “didn’t want to tilt the balance of power in northeast Syria” and that Tehran refused to support “popular resistance in Deir al-Zour” in order to “shake the stability of American presence in the area.”11 Assad also sought a new, more favorable credit line from Iran—the previous line of credit had ended two months earlier—but all he could get was an extension of the old line. Meanwhile, Tehran renewed its demands that Syria open its markets for Iranian goods.12
But Iran then became more interested in destabilizing the U.S. presence in Syria’s northeast toward the end of 2022. This change in position wasn’t a response to Damascus’s wish to start a “popular resistance.” Rather, Tehran changed because of other considerations related primarily to the U.S.-Iranian relationship. In mid-2022, the hopes of reaching a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran waned, while the relationship between Russia and Iran strengthened.13 A strong indication of that strengthening was Tehran’s agreement to supply much-needed drones to Russia starting in August 2022—in defiance of Western demands.14 Classified U.S. documents that were leaked in April 2023 indicate that Iran’s position shifted toward the end of 2022, and Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government increased their cooperation with the goal of destabilizing the U.S. presence in the northeast.15 Iran’s increasingly aggressive behavior in northeast Syria in the beginning of 2023 might have been the product of these shifts.
There is another more recent indication that Iran’s calculations in northeastern Syria are a response to the United States rather than Damascus. Recent reports describe a potential deal that involves the nuclear issue, U.S. prisoners held in Iran, releasing frozen Iranian assets, and—interestingly—halting Iranian-sponsored attacks in Syria’s northeast.16 This motivation for Iranian action means that upending the status quo in the northeast (or not), where pro-Iranian proxies have strong presence, is merely a bargaining chip for Tehran in its dealings with the United States. In contrast, Turkey’s dismantling of the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria and ousting the United States is a national security priority.
Turkey Becomes Interesting to Damascus
In sum, the Syrian government found itself with two military allies, neither of which were particularly responsive to Damascus’s needs. One, Russia, had different priorities and no appetite to divert its attention from Ukraine by fighting the government’s war in the northwest (and upsetting Turkey along the way). On the contrary, Russia had an interest in reconciling Damascus and Ankara. The second ally, Iran, was comfortable in the beginning of 2022 with the division of influence in the northeast, and sought to expand into government areas, rather than go into confrontation with the United States. Further, Tehran’s calculus in the northeast was affected by its relationship with Washington, not Damascus. Given these circumstances, talking with Turkey was a compelling alternative for Syria, despite the Syrian government having limited leverage or resources at its disposal.
Three additional factors may have forced Damascus into engaging directly with Turkey in December 2022, when the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers and their spy chiefs met in Moscow.17 Most notable was Russia’s pressure. Moscow wanted calm front lines in Syria and a diplomatic achievement, both of which could be accomplished through an agreement between Assad and Erdogan. The second factor was the Syrian government’s isolation. At the time, the Arab diplomatic track had failed to yield any results, and Syria failed to regain its seat in the Arab League summit held in Algeria in September 2022, despite the collective efforts made by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Algeria.18 The third factor was the worsening economic conditions in Syria, which provided an additional incentive to pursue an agreement with Turkey.19 As a sizable and unsanctioned economy, Turkey had the potential to mitigate some of Syria’s domestic economic pressures and resource shortages—and maybe even help evade sanctions.
The negotiations process was interrupted on February 6, 2023, when a devastating earthquake hit southern Turkey and northwestern Syria and left more than 50,000 dead, mostly in Turkey. It paralyzed Turkey and caused major infrastructure damage in southern parts of the country.20 The quake was the first of a series of events that came after the December 2022 meeting in Moscow. These developments ended up strengthening the Syrian government’s weak position vis-à-vis Turkey.
As Ankara was grappling with the sheer size of the disaster, the Syrian government swiftly seized the opportunity to capitalize on the event and facilitate disaster response, which created a context for Arab countries to reengage or strengthen their ties with the government. The Emirates led the relief effort, though many other Arab countries responded to the disaster, including Saudi Arabia. Syria received strong humanitarian support, while Assad was unusually preoccupied in responding to telephone calls, and receiving delegations and officials—including Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers, who made their first visits to Syria since the conflict started.21 The two weeks after the disaster were also unusually busy for Syria’s airports in Aleppo and Damascus. The influx of airplanes delivering aid through Aleppo was so overwhelming that the local airport staff were unable to handle the volume of traffic. As a result, additional staff had to be deployed from Damascus to assist in managing the situation.22
The Arab League Opens Its Arms
Another major event was Syria’s reclaiming of its seat in the Arab League, with Saudi endorsement. This development signaled the end of Assad’s regional isolation, and gave him more maneuvering room vis-à-vis Turkey. According to a source in Damascus, Saudi officials sent a note in December 2022 via a Russian diplomat to Damascus about Riyadh’s decision to normalize relations.23 The Saudi-Iranian deal brokered by China and Riyadh’s turn to host the next Arab League summit on May 19 likely accelerated Syria’s readmission to the “Arab family.”24
A meeting between the Syrian and Saudi foreign ministers in mid-April reshuffled the priorities of Riyadh’s Syria file, bringing humanitarian issues to the top and pushing security and political issues to second and third place, respectively. This was affirmed in a five-way meeting between Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, hosted by Jordan on May 1.25 A few weeks later, Assad landed in Jeddah to participate in the Arab League summit on May 19, and received a rather warm welcome from the hosts.26 On that day, Damascus was surely less isolated than it had been in December 2022, when the first meeting between Syrian and Turkish defense ministers and security chiefs took place.
All of the developments since the earthquake are likely to have enhanced Assad’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Turkey, and may have even helped the Syrian government to obtain bigger concessions from Ankara. Nonetheless, the key, original factors that forced the Syrian government to shift its policy toward Turkey have not changed: Russia still does not have the appetite for changing the status quo in the north without cooperation with Turkey, while Iran’s plans remain subject to a potential U.S.–Iran deal. In essence, as arduous as it may be, engaging in discussions with Turkey regarding the future of northern Syria appears to be the sole viable path for Damascus to change the status quo.
Section II: The View from Damascus
It is difficult to try to imagine what has been going on during the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, especially with all the moving pieces that could influence a potential agreement framework. In this section, we attempt to analyze what Damascus would likely settle for, building on the priorities that it has, and the postconflict realities for all sides. There are many unknown or changeable variables in the ongoing talks, but what appears to be certain is that Assad would normalize relations with Ankara only if he could get a consequential deal that secures the eventual (not immediate) Turkish withdrawal from Syria, economic gains, and security cooperation against the armed opposition in the northwest and Kurdish forces in the northeast. Settling for something less would only legitimize Turkey’s presence. On the other hand, a no-deal—which remains a possibility—would entail waiting, which is an approach that is typical to Syria’s way of negotiating. The Syrian government would most likely be willing to accept an indefinite interregnum during which none of its conditions are met.
Somewhat Empty Tough Talk
The matter of Turkey’s military withdrawal from Syria holds significant importance in the overall picture. Damascus has made it clear, both privately and publicly, that it will not proceed with a deal unless Turkey agrees to withdraw its forces. This issue was initially brought up by Damascus during the first meeting of defense ministers in December 2022.27 Since then it has been reiterated by Assad in April, and by his foreign minister after Russia hosted the first four-way meeting between the foreign ministers of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia on May 10.28 Turkey, in turn, has affirmed that it respects the territorial integrity of Syria, though it has refrained from publicly committing to withdraw. Ankara’s justification has been that the exhausted Syrian government won’t be able to fill the gap that a Turkish withdrawal would leave behind.29
The reality on the ground suggests that a quick Turkish withdrawal is unrealistic for Damascus—and perhaps even undesirable.
Despite the tough language used by Damascus about the need for Turkish withdrawal as a precondition for normalization, there are several indications that Syria’s actual bottom-line demand is something less: an unambiguous Turkish commitment to withdraw most forces, perhaps with Russian guarantees, rather than immediate withdrawal. According to a source in Damascus, the government delegation has suggested discussing a “withdrawal timeline” with the Turkish side, which might indicate that Damascus would be satisfied if Turkey merely committed to a withdrawal.30 Remarks by Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad on May 10 support this notion. Mekdad clarified that once Turkey publicly declares it will withdraw its forces, “practical and coordinated steps can be agreed upon to implement this in an organized and coordinated manner.”31
The reality on the ground also suggests that a quick Turkish withdrawal is unrealistic and perhaps even undesirable for Damascus. For one, Damascus does not have the capacity to absorb the whole of the northwest, either from the perspective of administration or security. The Syrian government has learned from the experience in Dera’a, where, years after its recapture, the government is still fighting to impose its security mandate.32 Similarly, Damascus does not have the ability to govern the northwest or provide basic services, especially considering that the area is much larger and more populous than Dera’a.33 And reclaiming large areas such as the northwest clearly creates a security challenge. A critical part of the northwest’s population represents the rural, largely Sunni population that—as Damascus sees it—constitutes the social base of those who rebelled and shook Assad’s rule. Moreover, in an important difference from southern areas that the government has reclaimed, integrating the large number of armed groups in the northwest into the government’s security-military institutions is hardly a possibility (this is especially true of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, which is the biggest of these groups). All that makes Damascus in less of a hurry to reintegrate the region into the country.
That said, the government is unhappy with the current status quo and will seek to change it through arrangements with Turkey. While it might not want to recapture the whole northwest, it surely would want to take back control of certain, strategically important parts of the northwest as part of the deal with Turkey. It’s not clear what exactly the government delegation is asking from Turkey, in what form, or whether it could in fact get it. Nevertheless, there are several indications that territorial changes are most likely being discussed.
The first evidence for this interpretation is the format of the meetings. There have been two meetings on the level of defense ministers, accompanied by military experts and security chiefs, which suggests that military and security matters are at the top of the agenda.
Secondly, concrete changes that would alter the control map on the ground have reportedly been discussed. One example is the section of the M4 highway that connects Aleppo with the coast through Idlib, most of which is currently under HTS control. Turkey and Russia have, at least twice, in 2018 and 2020, agreed to demilitarize the road corridor and open transit traffic between government-held Aleppo and Latakia.34 The road and areas adjacent to it have, however, remained under effective HTS control.
Reportedly, the Syrian side has brought up the issue of the M4 highway.35 And in April 2023, the Syrian Ministry of Defense also asserted that the implementation of the “especial agreement” concerning the M4 highway was discussed.36 The agreement most probably refers to the above-mentioned 2018 and 2020 Russian-Turkish agreements.37 For such a deal to happen, the control map would have to change in some shape or form, most likely at the expense of the HTS. The latter could choose to resist—though it would have little chance against the Syrian Army, supported by Iran and Russia, if Turkey agreed to change the status quo around the M4.
Borders, Trade, and Sanctions
In the context of territorial change, and also in the context of the government’s priority to gain and control economic resources, the future of border crossings (Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh) has also been discussed.38 The crossings are important for Damascus for their economic value. According to Turkish official statistics, Syrian imports from Turkey reached $2.1 and $2.2 billion in 2021 and 2022.39 Most of these imports enter via opposition-held areas for their consumption, but also get smuggled to other parts of Syria, including government-held areas. Damascus would likely seek to cut out the middlemen—the opposition-based traders—and exert direct control over parts of this trade, especially considering that Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is convinced that the real scale of the trade is several times bigger than the official statistics.40 Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks after the May 10 meeting only support this perspective. As part of Russia’s proposal to mend ties between the two countries, he said, it is important that the sides “regain logistical ties” and restart “economic cooperation”—things that would not be possible without a direct land border.41 Although Syria’s economic needs are more urgent than Turkey’s, there is value for Ankara, too, in possible economic cooperation, especially in the form of trade with the Gulf via Syria.
On the economic front, Damascus may also hope for Turkish help in circumventing Western sanctions. According to Turkish sources, Damascus asked Turkey not to support European and U.S. sanctions even before the recent rapprochement track started.42 Moreover, rejecting unilateral sanctions is something that usually makes it into the Astana statements issued by Turkey, Russia, and Iran.43 In this regard, the Syrian government might be hoping to benefit from Turkey, which is a large economy not under sanctions (unlike Iran and Russia) and has direct access to Europe, Iran, and (by sea) to Russia. To what extent Turkey would help the Syrian government remains to be seen, but, at the very least, Syria’s access to some commodities could improve. According to a senior official in Syria’s foreign ministry who follows humanitarian matters, Western sanctions have, for years, made it difficult for Syria to obtain materials that have dual military and civilian purposes, such as fertilizers. Syria has also had difficulty obtaining spare parts like gear boxes or used medical equipment—not due to sanctions, per se, but because sanctions have spooked large companies even for non-prohibited items.44 Turkey might ease the government’s access to such goods.
Countering the Kurds
Countering the Kurdish project in the northeast is another centerpiece to any agreement. Turkey and Syria perceive a common threat in the dominance of the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK). Turkey also perceives the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) that has emerged in the northeast as a national security threat. For Damascus, the endurance of the AANES threatens Syria’s territorial integrity and denies the Syrian government access to important resources, notably oil. Thus, in principle, Turkey and Syria share an enemy in the PYD, though an agreement around that fact may not be easily attainable.
For the central government, the Kurdish file is a threat, but it is also something to leverage against Turkey. Damascus sees its cooperation with Ankara against the Kurds as a valuable bargaining chip to be traded with Turkey for something consequential from its list of priorities. That Turkey and the central government share the PYD as an enemy is not enough—from Damascus’s perspective—to agree with Turkey to marginalize the Kurds. Still, Damascus has tried to exploit the Turkey–PYD animosity to its favor, while keeping channels open with both parties and without taking sides.
Damascus and the PYD leadership have maintained both direct and indirect channels of communication, through Russia and possibly the Emirates.45 Both sides have used these channels to convey their positions, though reportedly there haven’t yet been any serious negotiations.46 In 2019, Turkey launched its Peace Spring operation and successfully wrested control of a chunk of Syria’s borderland.47 Ever since, Damascus and Russia have been exploiting Turkey’s repeated threats in order to expand their presence in the northeast. They have successfully done so mainly under the banner of mitigating or fending off Turkish attacks in Kurdish-controlled areas.48
Concurrently, Damascus maintained communication with the Turkish side on the level of intelligence agencies even before the talks started in December 2022 in Moscow. In 2021, Syrian and Turkish security representatives met in Jordan and Lebanon to explore ways they might cooperate on intelligence.49 The two agencies’ shared understanding apparently stipulated that Syria would cooperate against the PKK in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation against what remained of the rebels in the northwest.
In the December 2022 meeting, the sides reportedly came to preliminary agreement on enhancing cooperation to target Kurdish officials in Syria, though the exact formula of such cooperation remains unclear.50 The government’s security services have deeply penetrated the SDF and the AANES, and thus their cooperation could be valuable for Turkey from a security perspective.51 Moreover, Turkish officials have publicly stated their desire to cooperate with the central authorities against the AANES.52 A potential agreement could be the continuation or even the expansion of the earlier understandings reached in Jordan and Lebanon in 2021. Although the exact trade-off might have changed during the course of the Syria–Turkey talks, there is no reason to believe that the fundamentals have changed—the Kurdish project remains a threat to both Assad and Erdogan.
It is important to note, however, that for such an advanced cooperation to happen, Damascus might have to fully join the Turkish efforts to diminish the Kurdish project and increase the pressure on the United States to leave. Such a scenario is possible, but for it to occur, Damascus would need not accept that it was giving up the Kurdish card. On the other hand, Turkey could potentially seek piecemeal solutions in the northeast to secure its borders, but the cooperation of Damascus is ultimately necessary to deliver a major blow to Kurdish aspirations.
As for the issue of refugee return, in contrast to Turkey, for Damascus the matter is hardly a priority. That is reflected in the many statements that both sides have issued since December 2022. Just recently, Erdogan said (in the context of his reelection campaign) that Turkey is “encouraging” Syrian refugees—about a million—to go back, and that Turkish nongovernmental organizations are building “residential units” for that purpose.53 The Syrian side, on the other hand, cares much more about Turkish withdrawal than refugee return.54
Agreements alone are not enough to bring millions of displaced Syrians back. The socioeconomic conditions in government-held areas are simply too grim.
In addition, Damascus finds the notion of a large-scale, uncoordinated refugee repatriation to northwest Syria (which is not necessarily refugees’ home area) unacceptable. Such efforts would face resistance from Damascus, especially if the returns were funded by Turkey, or Qatar, or any channels that the central government could neither control nor benefit from.55 Damascus could not completely prevent such plans if they were to happen, especially if Russia tolerated them. However, the Syrian government could sabotage them by destabilizing the northwest through, for example, shelling, airstrikes, or encouraging fighters from the People’s Defense Units (the YPG, a Kurdish group affiliated with the SDF) in Tal Raf‘at to attack.
Nevertheless, due to the importance of refugee return to Turkey, and the Syrian government’s limited ability to sabotage repatriation, Damascus must concede to Ankara on the matter, at least to some degree. If Damascus concedes nothing, it risks pushing Ankara to implement repatriation without consideration for the Syrian government’s priorities.
How all this will pan out remains rather speculative. Even Russia’s stance on refugee return is not clear. However, in a potential deal, the Syrian government could agree to some sort of cooperation and coordination, especially if it gets economic benefits in return. For Damascus, refugee return is an issue that is closely interlinked with economic aid. This formula has been evident at least since 2018, when Russia spearheaded an initiative linking refugee return to the reconstruction of Syria.56 The initiative died out when refugees did not return, and no funding came from the West, but the rationale endures.
Further, it is noteworthy that agreements alone are not enough to bring millions of Syrians back to any parts of Syria. And while Turkish-backed housing projects are underway in the northwest, housing and humanitarian aid alone are also not enough to incentivize displaced Syrians to return to a place with an uncertain future. The possibility of repatriation to areas controlled by the Syrian government is even more grim. Even if Damascus were to remove all the numerous obstacles to refugee return—obstacles the government itself is responsible for—the socioeconomic conditions in all government-held areas remain very unattractive for any Syrian to return to, unless it were at gunpoint.
Reshaping the Borderland
Issues that concern Syrian-Turkish rapprochement are many and complex, and cannot be exhaustively covered in this report. But a crucial thread that runs through all the issues related to rapprochement—both the issues discussed in this report and otherwise—is the fundamental importance of the security of the Syria–Turkey border. Thus, any agreement between the sides about any issue would first and foremost need to fulfill security concerns. Other matters, including humanitarian issues, political rights, justice, and transition, are only secondary or even tertiary concerns for the parties.
Put even more starkly: Turkey–Syria talks are an attempt to redraw the border and reshape the borderland, not to pursue justice and reconciliation. In other words, territorial changes in favor of the Syrian government, repatriation of Syrian refugees and sending them to the northwest (not necessarily their home area), and enhanced security cooperation against armed groups of all sorts—all could pave the way for an understanding between Ankara and Damascus about their common border. But that would come at a cost. The cost would involve some compromises by the negotiating sides, of course, but the real burden would most likely have to be taken up by the less powerful—in particular, Syrians in the north of the country.
For Damascus, the rapprochement process with Turkey, nurtured by Russia, marks the beginning of one the most difficult negotiations—and potentially one of the most consequential—since the start of the Syrian conflict. The journey won’t be smooth. Years of mutual suspicion, Turkish military presence on the ground, and complex demographic and security realities will only make the process more difficult. Talks could even stall. At the end of the day, “strategic patience” has been a defining characteristic of Assad’s policy even when, as one Syrian official put it, the concessions being offered to Syria by belligerents become smaller, not bigger. Turkey, in turn, might choose the difficult path of forging and maintain its own order in northern Syria.
As strange as it may sound, however, the governments in Ankara and Damascus have a common interest in cooperating to tackle the complex issues of Syria’s northern borderland. That, in itself, is a reason for talks to continue. Russia’s eagerness to reconcile Erdogan and Assad only reinforces that trend. The baby steps that Russia’s mediation has taken so far have not yielded concrete results, but they have effectively started a new phase in Syria–Turkey relations, which could be characterized as a shift in favor of cooperation toward reshaping the border. For two countries that have spent so much of their modern history shaping their frontier, such cooperation would be the logical next chapter.
This report is part of “Networks of Change: Reviving Governance and Citizenship in the Middle East,” a Century International project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
Header image: A child sits in the back of a car filled with their family’s belongings on February 23, 2023 in Idlib, Syria, a few weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Gaziantep, Turkey. Source: Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images
- Armenak Tokmajyan and Kheder Khaddour, “Border Nation: The Reshaping the Syrian-Turkish Border,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 30, 2022, https://carnegie-mec.org/2022/03/30/border-nation-reshaping-of-syrian-turkish-borderlands-pub-86758.
- Ibrahim Hamidi, “An American-Russian ‘Secret Dialogue’ about Syria to Avoid a Military and Humanitarian Clash” (in Arabic), Asharq al-Awsat, November 9, 2021, https://aawsat.com/home/article/3293236/«حوار-سري»-أميركي-ـ-روسي-حول-سوريا-لتجنب-صدام-عسكري-وإنساني.
- “Russia Demands Israel Unconditionally Cease Its ‘Unacceptable’ Syria Airstrikes,” Times of Israel, July 5, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/irresponsible-categorically-unacceptable-russia-pans-israel-for-syria-airstrikes/; Bassam Mroue, “Israeli Airstrikes Crippling Syria’s Main Airport Hikes Tensions,” Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-politics-business-iran-middle-east-5f55521b3d0610fd3206b20830924922; Firas Karam, “Iran Expands the Spread of Its Militias and Weapons in Syria” (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, April 7, 2022, https://aawsat.com/home/article/3577221/إيران-توسع-انتشار-ميليشياتها-وسلاحها-في-سوريا.
- “Russia Said to Pull Troops From Syria to Bolster Forces in Ukraine,” Times of Israel, May 8, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/russia-said-to-pull-troops-from-syria-to-bolster-forces-in-ukraine. A senior Military Official in the Syrian Army claimed that Russia’s military presence in Syria has suffered after the Ukraine war and that the Syrian leadership doesn’t expect a reversal anytime soon. Interview with the author, Damascus, April 2023.
- Mertin Gurcen, “Deciphering Turkey’s Darkest Night in Syria,” Al-Monitor, February 28, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/02/turkey-syria-russia-deciphering-attack-on-turkish-troops.html; “Turkey Targets Syrian Troops in Deadly Counterattack,” Deutsche Welle, February 3, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/turkey-targets-syria-troops-in-deadly-counterattack/a-52238424.
- A Russian academic with good knowledge of Russia’s foreign policy in Syria asserted that Moscow preferred diplomacy over military escalation. Interview with the author via Zoom, May 30, 2023.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, March 2023.
- According to a Russian source, Turkey had approached Russia to mediate a rapprochement with Syria, a proposal that Russia welcomed. A Russian academic with good knowledge of Russia’s foreign policy in Syria asserted that Moscow preferred diplomacy over military escalation. Interview with the author via Zoom, May 30, 2023. See, also, Ibrahim Hamidi, “Al-Assad and Erdogan . . . and the ‘Cup of Normalization’ from Putin,” Asharq al-Awsat, August 13, 2022, (Arabic), https://aawsat.com/home/article/3812916/الأسد-وإردوغان-و«كأس-التطبيع»-من-بوتين.
- Arie Egozi, “In Syria, Iranian Forces Fill Gaps Left by Ukraine-Bound Russians: Sources,” Breaking Defense, April 26, 2023, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/04/in-syria-iranian-forces-fill-gaps-left-by-ukraine-bound-russians-sources/.
- “President Assad Pays Work Visit to Tehran, Discusses with Sayyed Khamenei and Raisi Bilateral Cooperation, Latest Developments” (in Arabic). SANA, May 8, 2022, https://sana.sy/en/?p=271390.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, December 2022; Arab diplomat based in Damascus, interview with the author, December 2022.
- “Assad’s Surprise ‘Working Visit’ to Tehran” (in Arabic), Asharq al-Awsat, May 8, 2022, https://aawsat.com/home/article/3635181/«زيارة-عمل»-مفاجئة-للأسد-إلى-طهران; see also Ala Halabi, “Reactivating the Credit Line: Syria and Iran Strengthen Their Alliance” (in Arabic), Al-Akhbar, https://al-akhbar.com/Syria/336409. This is despite repeated demands from Tehran to enhance economic cooperation with Syria, with some suggesting that the economic relations don’t match up to the political ones and that economic exchange has in fact decreased over the past years. See, for example, “Iran and Syria . . . A Political Partnership That Does Not Affect the Economy” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, May 5, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.net/ebusiness/2023/5/5/إيران-وسوريا-شراكة-سياسية-لا-تنعكس-على.
- Nahal Toosi and Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Nuclear Talks in Peril as U.S. Calls Latest Iran Missive a Move ‘Backwards,’” Politico, September 1, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/09/01/nuclear-talks-u-s-iran-00054603.
- Natasha Bertrand, “US Assesses Russia Now in Possession of Iranian Drones, Sources Say,” CNN, August 30, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/29/politics/russia-iranian-drones/index.html.
- Joby Warrick and Evan Hill, “Iran Plans to Escalate Attacks against U.S. Troops in Syria, Documents Show,” Washington Post, June 1, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/06/01/discord-leaks-iran-russia-syria/.
- Michael Crowley et al. “Hoping to Avert Nuclear Crisis, U.S. Seeks Informal Agreement With Iran,” New York Times, June 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/14/us/politics/biden-iran-nuclear-program.html.
- “Russian, Syrian, Turkish Defence Ministers Meet in Moscow for First Talks since 2011,” France24, December 28, 2022, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20221228-russian-syrian-turkish-defence-ministers-meet-in-moscow-for-first-talks-since-2011.
- Pierre Boussel, “The Hopeless Summit of Arab Countries,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 20, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/88212.
- For example, the lira lost 35 percent of its value between November and the end of December 2022. See, “Hourly Black Market Exchange Rates and Gold Prices in Syria by City,” Karam Shaar: Making Sense of Syria’s Economy, https://www.karamshaar.com/exchange-rates
- British Red Cross, “Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria Earthquake: Three Months On,” May 3, 2023, https://www.redcross.org.uk/stories/disasters-and-emergencies/world/turkey-syria-earthquake; Alper Coskun, “Türkiye’s Earthquakes Revealed the Paralysis of Its State,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 15, 2023, https://carnegieendowment.org/2023/02/15/t-rkiye-s-earthquakes-revealed-paralysis-of-its-state-pub-89053.
- Sara Cahan and Erik Yavorsky, “Disaster Dynamics: Assessing Middle East Responses to the Turkey-Syria Earthquake and Other Destructive Events,” Washington Institute for Near East Studies, March 3, 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/disaster-dynamics-assessing-middle-east-responses-turkey-syria-earthquake-and-other; “Syria’s Assad Meets Senior Arab Lawmakers in Damascus,” Al Jazeera, February 26, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/26/syrias-assad-meets-senior-arab-lawmakers-in-damascus; “Egypt Foreign Minister Visits Syria for First Time since 2011,” Al Jazeera, February 27, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/27/egypts-foreign-minister-visits-syria-for-first-time-since-war; “Jordan’s Foreign Minister Visits Syria in First Trip since War,” Reuters, February 15, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/jordans-foreign-minister-visit-syria-turkey-show-solidarity-after-quake-2023-02-15/.
- Syrian official who holds the rank of major, conversation with the author at the Damascus airport, March 6, 2023
- Senior journalist and editor with strong ties to the presidential palace, discussion with the author, Damascus, December 2022.
- “Iran–Saudi Arabia Deal Casts China in Unfamiliar Global Role,” Associated Press, March 13, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/china-saudi-arabia-iran-global-mediator-45ec807c8fd2b2aa65eef4cc313b739d.
- “Text of the Final Statement of the Amman Consultative Meeting—Details” (in Arabic), Amman Net, May 1, 2023, https://ammannet.net/أخبار/نص-البيان-الختامي-لاجتماع-عمان-التشاوري-تفاصيل.
- “Assad Gets Warm Reception as Syria Welcomed Back into Arab League,” Al Jazeera, May 19, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/19/assad-gets-warm-welcome-as-syria-welcomed-back-into-arab-league.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, March 20, 2023.
- See “President al-Assad in an Interview with Sputnik: My Visit to Moscow Will Pave the Way for a New Phase in Relations between Two Countries,” Syria Times, March 16, 2023, http://syriatimes.sy/president-al-assad-in-an-interview-with-sputnik-my-visit-to-moscow-will-pave-the-way-for-a-new-phase-in-relations-between-two-countries/. See also “Among Them Is Ending the Illegal Military Presence, Including the Turkish Ones, on Syrian Lands . . . Mekdad Presents Several Principles to Advance the Path of Normalizing Relations with Ankara” (in Arabic), Al-Watan, May 11, 2023, https://alwatan.sy/archives/345401.
- In this statement, Turkey’s foreign minister once again affirms his country’s respect to Syrian territorial integrity. Sarp Ozer, “Türkiye Says 4-Way Meeting in Moscow Discussed Strengthening Security in Syria,” Anadolu Agency, April 25, 2023, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkiye-says-4-way-meeting-in-moscow-discussed-strengthening-security-in-syria/2881219. See also Said Abdul Razzq, “Security Files and Military Positioning on the Syrian-Turkish ‘Normalization’ Table” (in Arabic), Asharq al-Awsat, April 26, 2023, https://aawsat.com/home/article/4294671/الملفات-الأمنية-والتموضع-العسكري-على-طاولة-«التطبيع»-السوري-ـ-التركي.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, March 2023.
- Al-Watan, “Among Them Is Ending the Illegal Military Presence.”
- “Syrian Regime Prepares for Military Operation in Western Countryside of Dera’a,” Asharq Al-Awsat, July 4, 2023, https://english.aawsat.com/arab-world/4414801-syrian-regime-prepares-military-operation-western-countryside-daraa.
- Armenak Tokmajyan and Kheder Khaddour, “A Fractured Border: Syria, Türkiye, and Cantonization,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 27, 2023, https://carnegie-mec.org/2023/03/27/fractured-border-syria-t-rkiye-and-cantonization-pub-89377.
- “Moscow’s ‘Quartet’ Meeting of Defense Ministers: Continuing Dialogue for the Sake of Stability in Syria and the Region . . .” (in Arabic), Al-Watan, April 26, 2023, https://alwatan.sy/archives/343464.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, April 2023.
- Al-Watan, “Moscow’s ‘Quartet’ Meeting.”
- For the 2018 agreement, see the Kremlin’s statement: “Press Statement Following Russian-Turkish Talks,” website of the president of Russia, September 17, 2018, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/58574. For the 2020 agreement, see “Russia, Turkey Begin Joint Patrols along Syria’s M4 Highway,” Al Jazeera, March 15, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/15/russia-turkey-begin-joint-patrols-along-syrias-m4-highway.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, March 2023.
- “Syria-Turkey Bilateral Trade 2010-2022” The Syria Report, February 2, 2023, https://syria-report.com/syria-turkey-bilateral-trade-2010-2021/.
- An official at the Economic Office of Syria’s Foreign Ministry stated, during a closed-door conference in Damascus in 2018, that the real value of Turkish exports is much higher than $2 billion.
- “Four-Way Agreement in Moscow to Prepare a Road Map for Normalizing Relations between Syria and Turkey” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, May 10, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/2023/5/10/روسيا-تقترح-خريطة-طريق-لتطبيع.
- Said Abdul Razzq, “Why Has Turkey Now Abandoned Its Refusal to Normalize Its Relations with Assad’s Syria?” (in Arabic), Asharq Al-Awsat, August 28, 2022, https://aawsat.com/home/article/3838516/لماذا-تخلت-تركيا-الآن-عن-رفضها-تطبيع-علاقاتها-مع-سوريا-الأسد؟.
- See, for example, the most recent Astana trio statement. “The Text of the Joint Statement Issued at the End of the 20th Round of the Astana Meeting” (in Arabic), Russia Today, June 16, 2023, https://rtarabic.com/world/1471919-البيان-المشترك-لممثلي-إيران-وروسيا-وتركيا-بنتائج-الجولة-20-حول-سوريا-بصيغة-أستانا/?utm_source=telegram&utm_medium=telegram&utm_campaign=telegram.
- Senior official responsible for the humanitarian file at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, interview with the author, May 2023.
- Ambarin Zaman, “Syria’s Kurds Turn To UAE to Ease Tensions with Assad,” Al-Monitor, May 3, 2023, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/05/syrias-kurds-turn-uae-ease-tensions-assad. In an interview, a senior PYD official in Lebanon confirmed that Mazloum Abdi indeed went to the UAE, and sought Abu Dhabi’s mediation with Damascus. Interview with the author, May 2023, Beirut. See also Bara Sabri, “Northeast Syria’s Journey: An Exclusive Interview with Syrian Democratic Forces Commander Mazloum Abdi,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 6, 2022, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/northeast-syrias-journey-exclusive-interview-syrian-democratic-forces-commander.
- Bara Sabri, “Northeast Syria’s Journey.”
- Umut Uras, “Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in Northern Syria: One Month On,” Al Jazeera, November 8, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/8/turkeys-operation-peace-spring-in-northern-syria-one-month-on.
- Bethan McKernan, “Russia Steps up Its Presence in North-East Syria after Turkey Deal,” Guardian, October 23, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/23/russia-steps-up-presence-north-east-syria-after-turkey-deal; Wael Asem, et al. “Syria: The Kurds Announce an Agreement with Damascus on the Deployment of Government Forces along the Border with Turkey” (in Arabic) Al-Quds Al-Arabi, October 13, 2019, https://www.alquds.co.uk/سوريا-الأكراد-يعلنون-الاتفاق-مع-دمشق-ع/. In November 2022, Russia reportedly pressured the AANES to relinquish control over parts of Syria’s borderland to the Syrian Army to avert another Turkish incursion that, although it did not happen, seemed imminent at the time. “Russia and the Escalation in Northern Syria: ‘Mediation’ or ‘Exploitation’ of ‘Interest’?” (in Arabic), Alhurra, November 28, 2022, https://www.alhurra.com/turkey/2022/11/28/روسيا-والتصعيد-في-شمال-سوريا-وساطة-أم-استثمار-لـمصلحة؟.
- Yılmaz Bilgen, “Again with Syria: PKK Will Be Cleared, Refugees Will Return to Their Homes” (in Turkish), Türkiye, December 30, 2021, https://www.turkiyegazetesi.com.tr/dunya/suriye-ile-yeniden-pkk-temizlenecek-multeciler-evine-donecek-815186. The information was confirmed to the author by an official from Syria’s National Security Bureau, Damascus, December 2021.
- Senior security official from Air Force intelligence, interview with the author, December 2020.
- “Turkey Links Progress with Syria to Joint Efforts against SDF,” North Press Agency, July 23, 2023, https://npasyria.com/en/101534/.
- Tamara Qiblawi, “Erdogan Hails ‘Special Relationship’ with Putin Ahead of Crucial Turkey Runoff Vote,” CNN, May 19, 2023 https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/19/middleeast/turkey-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-interview-mime-intl/index.html.
- See, for example, Al-Watan, Among Them Is Ending the Illegal Military Presence”; and “Mekdad: The Arab Situation Is Promising in Terms of Deepening Arab Relations, and the Jeddah Meetings Were at the Level of Ambitions” (in Arabic), Syrian Ministry of Media webpage, May 22, 2023, http://www.moi.gov.sy/index.php?content=2&article=NTU5Njg=.
- Senior military officer with intimate knowledge of the Syria–Turkey talks in Moscow, interview with the author, Damascus, December 2023.
- “Easing Syrian Refugees’ Plight in Lebanon,” International Crisis Group, February 13, 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/lebanon/211-easing-syrian-refugees-plight-lebanon.