MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s defense minister hosted his counterparts from Iran, Syria and Turkey on Tuesday for talks that were part of the Kremlin’s efforts to help broker a rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the talks focused on “practical steps to strengthen security in the Syrian Arab Republic and to normalize Syrian-Turkish relations.”
Moscow has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, teaming up with Iran to allow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to reclaim control over most of the country. Turkey has backed armed opposition to Assad throughout the 12-year Syrian civil war.
While the bulk of Russia’s armed forces have been busy fighting in Ukraine, Moscow has maintained its military presence in Syria and has also made persistent efforts to help Assad rebuild fractured ties with Turkey and other countries in the region following the civil war that has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s prewar population.
In December, Moscow hosted a surprise meeting of the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers, the first such encounter since Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war began in 2011. And earlier this month, senior diplomats from Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow for two days of talks intended to set the stage for a meeting of the four countries’ foreign ministers.
The efforts toward a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under intense pressure at home to send Syrian refugees back amid a steep economic downturn and an increasing anti-refugee sentiment. He faces presidential and parliamentary elections in May.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its readout of Tuesday’s talks that the parties “reaffirmed their adherence to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the need to step up efforts to allow a speedy return of Syrian refugees.”
The Turkish Defense Ministry issued a similarly worded statement, noting that the four ministers discussed the issue of strengthening security in Syria, the concrete steps that can be taken to normalize ties between Turkey and Syria, the fight against terrorist and extremist groups on the Syrian territory and efforts for the return of Syrian refugees.
The statement said the sides also emphasized the importance of the continuation of the four-party meetings “to ensure and maintain stability in Syria and the region as a whole.”
On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also hosted Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his counterparts from Syria and Iran for separate bilateral talks.
Turkey has de facto control over large swathes of northwestern Syria, and Assad’s government has described the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory is a prerequisite for a normalization of ties.
Syria’s Defense Ministry said that Tuesday’s talks in Moscow focused on the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria as well as the reopening of the M4 highway. The west-east highway cuts through government-controlled coastal regions and passes through the rebel-held northwest all the way to Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast.
Russian and Turkish troops have conducted joint patrols over the past years on the highway, which links the Mediterranean with the Iraqi border, but repeated protests in rebel-held areas have prevented the return of traffic to normal.
The vital highway has been partially closed since 2012. The decision to reopen it was part of a truce reached in March 2020 between Russia and Turkey that ended a monthslong Russian-backed government offensive on the rebel-held northeast.
But even as Turkey has supported Syrian opposition fighters in the north, Ankara and Damascus are equally dismayed over the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria’s northeast. Turkey-backed opposition fighters have clashed with the SDF in the past, accusing them of being an arm of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK has for decades waged an insurgency within Turkey.
Assad’s government has cast the SDF as a secessionist force that has been pilfering the country’s wealth while controlling Syria’s major oil fields.
The Russian Defense Ministry noted that during Tuesday’s talks “special attention was given to countering terror threats and fighting all groups of extremists on Syrian territory.”
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.