Can Russia emulate China’s Middle East diplomatic success with a Turkiye-Syria rapprochement?

Special Can Russia emulate China’s Middle East diplomatic success with a Turkiye-Syria rapprochement?
Senior Russian and Turkish diplomats, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at talks in Moscow in 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 03 April 2023

Can Russia emulate China’s Middle East diplomatic success with a Turkiye-Syria rapprochement?

Can Russia emulate China’s Middle East diplomatic success with a Turkiye-Syria rapprochement?
  • In December, Assad ally Moscow hosted the highest-level meeting of Syrian and Turkish ministers since 2012
  • Beijing’s success as a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran attributed to its cordial relations with both countries

IRBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: Russia may be hoping it can replicate China’s success in brokering the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Middle East heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran by overseeing a restoration of bilateral ties between Syria and Turkiye. But analysts caution that fundamental differences between the two normalization efforts militate against a quick breakthrough.

In December, Moscow hosted a meeting of Syrian and Turkish defense ministers for talks in what was seen as the beginning of a potential rapprochement between the two rivals. It was the highest-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian officials since the two countries severed ties in 2012 after the start of the Syrian civil war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Turkish FM Mevlut Cavusoglo, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (2ndR) and Turkish Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan (R) prior to their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on August 24, 2018. (AFP)

Moscow will host another meeting between the deputy foreign ministers of Syria, Turkiye, Iran and Russia on April 3-4, where they will discuss the Syria situation. A senior Turkish official told Reuters that the meeting “is expected to be a continuation of the ministerial-level meetings that began during the normalization process” promoted by Russia.

“Russia has plenty of leverage with Syrian President Bashar Assad and good relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which gives it authority and weight in the Turkiye-Syrian negotiations,” Joshua Landis, director of both the Center of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Arabian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Arab News.

“Syria and Turkiye also have a number of major stumbling blocks impeding an agreement — Turkiye occupies some 10 percent of Syrian soil and backs the rebel militias that opposed Assad’s rule,” he said.

Turkish troops travel in vehicles toward Tal Abyad in Syria on October 10, 2019 as Ankara launched a broad assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria. (AFP)

Though Beijing successfully served as a mediator between Riyadh and Tehran due to its cordial relations with both countries, the US has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for decades. Washington also opposes Assad and has discouraged allied nations from restoring relations with Damascus. Russia, on the other hand, maintains good ties with Turkiye and Syria.

There is one significant distinction between the nature of these relationships, however. China has much more balanced ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran than Russia does with Turkiye and Syria.

“Russia is deeply involved as a security guarantor for the Syrian government thanks to Moscow’s support for Damascus over the last decade of civil war,” Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told Arab News.

Syria’s Bashar Assad with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Latakia, Syria. (AFP)

“This is very different from China’s more balanced relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran; China is not a security guarantor for either Tehran or Riyadh.

“Russia’s close relationship with the Syrian government certainly gives Russia power to mediate with Syria that few other countries have, but Russia lacks that same kind of relationship with Turkiye.”

Anton Mardasov, an independent Russian analyst and non-resident scholar of the Middle East Institute’s Syria program, doubts that Moscow can achieve what Beijing did since it is “a party to the conflict in Syria” even though it has tried to play the role of mediator.

“The Kremlin finds itself in a difficult position: On the one hand, it would like to increase Damascus’ potential in order to absolve itself of responsibility for its survival,” Mardasov told Arab News. “In this sense, the restoration of Syrian-Turkish ties and deepening, for example, of economic cooperation, is Moscow’s goal.”

“Moreover, given the war in Ukraine and Turkiye’s importance as an economic partner, the Kremlin is interested in pushing Assad to get closer to Turkiye, as it is in Ankara’s interest, primarily given the refugee issue,” he said.

Strong disagreements between Ankara and Damascus over the future of northern Syria also complicate Moscow’s normalization efforts.

“The closest analogous territory between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be Yemen, but Yemen is its own sovereign country and the conflict dynamics are very different,” Hawthorne said.

“Among the challenges Russia would face trying to mediate restored Ankara-Damascus ties would be the challenging question of the future of northern Syria, and whether Damascus can promise to resolve Turkiye’s security concerns regarding Kurdish militants there.”

This aerial view shows a  March 21, 2023, funeral procession for Kurdish men killed by Turkish-backed fighters in Jindayris, Aleppo. (AFP)

Mardasov said Assad is in a weak position and making unrealistic demands. He pointed out that Turkiye formally has no troops in northern Syria since allied opposition factions control those territories, although it has troops on the border and can swiftly intervene on behalf of these factions.

“The presence of Turkish troops in Idlib was formally approved not only by Russia but also by Iran within the framework of the Astana process,” he said, referring to the tripartite Russia-Iran-Turkiye Syria peace process launched in January 2017. “Therefore, to insist on their withdrawal is to insist on the breakdown of the agreements in Astana.”

On top of this, Turkiye controls Syrian territories that are home to millions of people, giving it significant leverage.

“This is actually quite a delicate situation since Russia, as Assad’s protector, is also in a dependent position on Turkiye, both in terms of projects against the background of the war in Ukraine and in terms of negotiations on the Syrian track,” Mardasov said. “Here, it is more about tactical steps so that Moscow does not worsen its position as, strategically, the situation is not too advantageous for the Kremlin.”

Landis anticipates negotiations will remain largely on hold until after Turkiye’s elections on May 14.

Syrian refugees passing through a Turkish border point. (AFP)

“The Turkish opposition has denounced Erdogan’s policies toward Syria and claims that it will move forward quickly with normalizing relations with Syria,” he said. “What is more, the Turkish opposition has little obligation to the Syrian rebel groups that Erdogan championed and has promised to protect.”

“If Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins in May, relations between Damascus and Ankara are likely to improve rapidly,” he added, “although the problem of dealing with the four million refugees and Islamist militiamen will not go away.”

Russia also has a self-interest in securing normalization.

“A more stable client state for Russia means a more stable foothold for Russia in the broader Middle East,” Hawthorne said.

Furthermore, the stakes are not too high for Russia if its efforts on this front stall.

“If Moscow fails in this endeavor, it is unlikely to markedly damage Russia’s standing in the Middle East, which relies more on Russia’s ability to maintain a Rolodex of vastly different bilateral relationships across the region,” Hawthorne said.

“Russian mediation could advance the conversation between Syria and Turkiye, but until Ankara and Damascus come to their own understanding on the future of northern Syria, it is unlikely Moscow will succeed.”

Syrian opposition supporters gather in the streets of al-Bab on the border with Turkiye on March 15, 2023, to mark the 12th anniversary of the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. (AFP)

Landis also pointed out that Russia has invested “a great deal” in Assad’s Syria and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “win” there has been a “great foreign policy success” for Russia.

However, Syria remains in “jeopardy” given the general boycott of Assad and the “devastating sanctions” imposed on Damascus.

“If Putin can undo Syria’s isolation and help revive regional diplomatic and trade agreements, he will have locked in his success,” Landis said.

Having said that, he is optimistic that Ankara and Damascus will eventually reach an agreement.

“I believe that Syria and Turkiye will normalize relations, even if the road is a bumpy one,” he said. “The two countries share a 764-km border. They have a common interest in getting American troops out of Syria, stopping the arming of the Kurds, and cracking down on ‘terrorism.’”

“Both have an interest in returning to the good relations that they shared before the war, which helped both countries to prosper and develop.”


’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release

’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release
Updated 13 sec ago

’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release

’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release
TEL AVIV: Hundreds of Israelis gathered in what has come to be known as Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday to call for the release of nearly 140 people still being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
As speakers took to the stage, those in the crowd held placards bearing messages like “they trust us to get them out of hell,” and “bring them home now.”
Ruby Chen, the father of 19-year-old hostage Itai Chen, said from the podium: “We are asking the Israeli cabinet, the war cabinet, to explain what exactly is on the negotiating table.
“We demand to be part of the negotiation process,” added Chen, whose son is a solider and was taken while on duty.
“Get them out now, immediately, whatever the price might be.”
Demonstrator Yoav Zalmanovitz said the government “did not care” about the hostages.
“They want revenge,” he told AFP.
Zalmanovitz’s 85-year-old father, Arye, was taken alive to Gaza and “murdered” there weeks later, Yoav said.
Hamas dragged around 240 hostages back to Gaza during its bloody October 7 attack on Israel, and fears for their safety have gripped the public through eight weeks of war.
A one-week truce deal that ended on December 1 saw 105 hostages released from Gaza, among them 80 Israelis — mostly women and children — freed in exchange for 240 Palestinians jailed by Israel.
However, efforts to revive the deal have stalled, and Israel says at least 137 hostages are believed to still be in Hamas captivity.
In the crowd on Saturday, Eli Eliezer, who said he had a relative among those still being held, told AFP the government should have prioritized returning the hostages over pressing its war against Hamas.
“They should have made a deal earlier,” the 61-year-old engineer said. “It’s the government’s job to keep its people and its land safe.”
Earlier on Saturday, 25-year-old Sahar Baruch, who hailed from one of the kibbutzim hit hardest on October 7, became the latest captive to be confirmed dead.
He was “kidnapped from his home by Hamas terrorists to Gaza... and murdered there,” the community of Beeri and the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a joint statement, without providing evidence.
The day before, Hamas had posted a video purporting to show Baruch’s body, saying he was killed during a failed rescue attempt. AFP was unable to independently verify the video’s authenticity.
In late October, Israeli soldier Ori Megidish, 19, was rescued in a military operation just over three weeks after she was kidnapped from an observation post on the heavily militarised Gaza border.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in retaliation for the October 7 attack, which Israeli officials say killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
Its relentless bombardments and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip have killed at least 17,700 people, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official
Updated 12 min 25 sec ago

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official
  • Tunisia, alongside Libya, is the principal departure point for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe

TUNIS: Close to 70,000 migrants were intercepted trying to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy this year, more than double the 2022 figure, the Tunisian National Guard told AFP on Saturday.
Tunisia, alongside Libya, is the principal departure point for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe.
The number intercepted by Tunisian authorities was 69,963 for the first 11 months of 2023, compared to 31,297 in the same period last year, according to data from the National Guard.
Foreigners made up 78 percent, while the rest were Tunisians.
That was a significant shift from 2022, when 59 percent were foreign migrants.
The exodus accelerated in February after Tunisia’s President Kais Saied denounced the arrival of “hordes of illegal migrants” from sub-Saharan Africa whom he claimed were part of a “criminal plan” aimed at “changing the demographic composition” of the country.
The speech triggered a violent anti-migrant campaign, prompting several African countries, notably the Ivory Coast and Guinea, to repatriate thousands of their citizens, while many migrants attempted to flee by boat, leading to a number of sinkings.
Tunisia has been accused by the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs of “expelling” migrants to Libya and Algeria, which Tunisian authorities deny.
International humanitarian sources told AFP that at least 5,500 migrants have been expelled to the border with Libya and 3,000 to that with Algeria since June, including a large number caught trying to leave for Europe.
More than 100 migrants have died in the Libyan-Tunisian desert this summer, they said, adding that “collective expulsions to Libya and Algeria continue.”
Most of the intercepted migrants were caught on Tunisia’s eastern coastline close to Sfax, which is only around 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
This summer, a wave of departures was triggered by a brawl in Sfax in which a Tunisian was killed, leading police to send hundreds into the desert.

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships
Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships
  • The Houthis have recently attacked ships they claim have direct links to Israel, but their latest threat expands the scope of their targets

SANAA: Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels threatened on Saturday to attack any vessels heading to Israeli ports unless food and medicine were allowed into the besieged Gaza Strip.
The latest warning comes amid heightened tensions in the Red Sea and surrounding waters following a series of maritime attacks by Houthi rebels since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7.
In a statement posted on social media, the Houthis said they “will prevent the passage of ships heading to the Zionist entity” if humanitarian aid is not allowed into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The Houthis have recently attacked ships they claim have direct links to Israel, but their latest threat expands the scope of their targets.
Regardless of which flag ships sail under or the nationality of their owners or operators, Israel-bound vessels “will become a legitimate target for our armed forces,” the statement said.
Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said his country would not accept the “naval siege,” noting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked US President Joe Biden and European leaders to take measures to address the situation.
“If the world will not take care of it,” Hanegbi warned on Israel’s Channel 12 television, “we will take action to remove the naval siege.”
Last week, the Houthis attacked two ships off the Yemeni coast, including a Bahamas-flagged vessel, claiming they were Israeli-owned.
And last month, the rebel forces seized the Galaxy Leader, an Israeli-linked cargo vessel.
“We warn all ships and companies against dealing with Israeli ports,” the latest Houthi statement said.
It added that all “ships linked to Israel or that will transport goods to Israeli ports” are not welcome in the Red Sea, a vital channel for global trade linked to the Suez Canal.
Beyond maritime attacks, the Houthis have launched a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Israel since the deadly attacks by Palestinian militant group Hamas triggered all-out war.
The militants poured over the border into Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240 others, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and launched a military offensive in Gaza that has killed at least 17,700 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The spike in maritime incidents prompted G7 foreign ministers at a meeting earlier this month to urge the rebels to cease threats to international shipping and to release the Galaxy Leader.

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts
Updated 16 min 53 sec ago

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts
  • Supreme Islamic Council condemns Israeli targeting of villages, farms
  • French delegation leads talks in Tel Aviv, Beirut in bid to restore calm

BEIRUT: Confrontations between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli army intensified on Saturday as talks continued in an effort to end the conflict on Lebanon’s southern border.

The Supreme Islamic Council, which includes Sunni figures in Lebanon, expressed concern about Israeli targeting of villages, towns, and farms in southern areas of the country.

The council met in Dar Al-Fatwa, chaired by the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian.

Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian. (AFP file photo)

In a statement, the council said that Israeli officials should be considered “perpetrators of war crimes and mass crimes against humanity, and subjected to international justice, to prevent the occurrence of these crimes elsewhere in the world.”

The statement came as a French delegation met with Lebanese leaders and security officials for a second day in a bid to settle the conflict.

The delegation visited Tel Aviv ahead of the talks, which seek to restore calm along the Blue Line as part of a commitment to implement UN Resolution 1701.

Speaking after the meeting, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said he notified the visiting French delegation of acts of Israeli aggression stretching back to 2006 and involving more than 30,000 violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

He called for the demarcation of the land border and an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Lebanese regions.

Bou Habib reiterated that Lebanese airspace should not be used to attack Syria, and highlighted the importance of supporting the Lebanese army in implementing the UN resolution.

The delegation from France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs is led by Frederic Mondoloni, director-general for political and security affairs, and includes Alice Rufo, director-general of external relations and strategy at the French Ministry of Armed Forces.

Israel stepped up its shelling of southern border villages on Saturday.

Homeowners and facility owners captured footage of the widespread destruction of property, with some houses in Odaisseh and Aita Al-Shaab leveled.

Some of the villages are believed to have been targeted preemptively by Israel in order to thwart possible attacks by Hezbollah.

After a night of Israeli shelling, Hezbollah resumed its strikes on Israeli military sites.

Hezbollah said it targeted Israeli soldiers near Metula “with appropriate weapons, causing direct hits.”

The militant group also renewed its shelling of areas in Ramyah, and said it struck an Israeli bunker, killing and wounding those inside.

It also targeted an Israeli army site in Ras Naqoura.

The killing of several fighters in the past 48 hours has lifted Hezbollah’s death toll to 95 since the beginning of its involvement in hostilities on Oct. 8.

Media reports said that three militants died when their car was targeted by an Israeli drone in Quneitra, Syria.

The Israeli army escalated its attacks on Lebanon, shelling Mount Labouneh with heavy artillery, according to a security source.

For the second time in recent days the Israeli army also targeted Lebanese army facilities.

Israeli shelling targeted an army hospital in Ain Ebel, according to the Lebanese Army Command, while an army site in Jidar, near Rmeish, was hit by two phosphorus shells, injuring two soldiers.

Three soldiers were injured when Israeli rockets struck the Intelligence and Naval Forces Center in Ras Al-Naqoura.

Israeli artillery also targeted the outskirts of the Kfarchouba village and the Zebdine outpost, with rockets being fired every 15 minutes.

Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee said that fighter jets hit a series of Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon, including the party’s operational headquarters.



Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor

Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor
Updated 57 min 15 sec ago

Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor

Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor
  • “Regime forces directly targeted residential areas of the city of Idlib,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
  • Government forces fired “more than 35 missiles” during the bombardment

BEIRUT: Six civilians were killed and 25 others wounded on Saturday in Syrian army bombardment of the country’s last major rebel bastion, a war monitor said.
“Regime forces directly targeted residential areas of the city of Idlib,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that industrial areas were also hit, as well as “residential areas in the town of Sarmin” nearby.
Six civilians, “including two children and a woman,” were killed in Idlib and Sarmin, while 25 others were wounded in the strikes in various areas of Idlib province, added the Britain-based Observatory.
Government forces fired “more than 35 missiles” during the bombardment, it added.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch, controls swathes of Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.
HTS is considered a terrorist group by Damascus, as well as by the United States and the European Union.
Parts of the rebel bastion have seen fierce fighting in recent days, according to the Observatory.
On Friday, it said 11 pro-government forces and five HTS fighters had been killed after the jihadists launched an attack in neighboring Aleppo province a day earlier.
Late last month, Syrian government bombardment killed nine civilians including six children as they harvested olives in Idlib province, reported the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
Civil war erupted in Syria after President Bashar Assad crushed peaceful anti-government protests in 2011.
The conflict has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions after spiralling into a devastating war involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
A cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkiye was declared in Idlib after a government offensive in March 2020, but it has been repeatedly violated.