The head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan, met with his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in Moscow on Monday, marking the first official contact in years between the two officials. The Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies reportedly held backchannel meetings in Syria and Iran over the past few years, but this Russian-brokered public meeting is a sign that Ankara has begun giving in to Moscow’s pressure to recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime.
Monday’s meetings in Moscow involved a delegation of senior Turkish officials, including the Turkish foreign and defense ministers, who joined Russian officials and leaders of Libya’s warring factions as they negotiated a ceasefire deal in Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who back opposing sides in Libya’s ongoing civil war, hope to use their personal rapport to find a negotiated settlement for the long-running conflict.
The parallel meetings between intelligence chiefs from Ankara and Damascus indicate that Erdogan and Putin were also trying to resolve their differences in Syria, where they again back opposing sides. Assad’s intelligence chief reportedly made three demands from his Turkish counterpart: Turkey’s recognition of Syria’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Turkish troops and proxies from Syria, and Ankara’s elimination of terrorist elements from Idlib to open up the M-4 and M-5 motorways. It is not yet clear how the Turkish intelligence chief reacted to these demands, acquiescence to which would amount to a near-complete capitulation.
Since 2011, Erdogan has fought hard to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with a Muslim Brotherhood administration loyal to Ankara. In 2017, Erdogan publically called the Syrian leader a “terrorist” and stated that there can be no peace process “with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens.” Accordingly, the Turkish government has helped support, fund, and train a range of proxy fighters, including jihadist elements among their ranks.
The Assad regime, however, remains firmly entrenched, primarily propped up by its Russian and Iranian allies. In 2019, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Turkish border zone in northeastern Syria led to Erdogan’s subsequent military operations there, aimed at expelling America’s Syrian Kurdish partners. This development on the battlefield led to a “historic” deal in Sochi between Turkey and Russia, which created the “safe zone” inside Syria that Ankara had long demanded. The deal also allowed Syrian government forces to move back into the border regions from which they had been absent for years.
Monday’s official meeting between the Turkish and Syrian spy chiefs indicates that Erdogan is coming close to recognizing the Assad regime in return for Moscow’s further cooperation in Libya and Syria. Putin’s remarkable ability to reverse Erdogan’s Syria ambitions and force an official meeting between Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials is yet another reminder that Russia is keen and able to fill the vacuum left by the partial U.S. withdrawal from Syria and the Middle East.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Brenna Knippen is a research associate. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan, Brenna, and CMPP, subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan and Brenna on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @brenna_knippen. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.