Beirut: Russian President Vladimir Putin is suggesting a tripartite summit in Moscow this September, between himself and his Turkish and Syrian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar Al Assad.
If it does happen, this would be the first time that the two friends turned sworn enemies come face-to-face since their last meeting in Damascus in January 2011.
During their meeting in St. Petersburg last August, Putin and Erdogan agreed on a basket of political issues related to their country’s roles in the Syrian battlefield.
The understanding comes amidst a warming of ties between Ankara and Moscow after the failed coup attempt in July and Russia’s military involvement in the Syria War since September.
Erdogan sought Russian assistance in amputating the Kurdish threat on the Syrian-Turkish border, and in taking border towns and cities that he sees as vital for his country’s security.
If the Russians cooperated on seriously handling the Kurdish threat, he was willing to fall in-line with President Putin’s strategy for Syria, realising that a clean cut victory against Al Assad, as Erdogan had anticipated back in 2011, was becoming increasingly difficult.
Instead of getting further entrenched in the Syrian War, which has backfired on Turkey with an influx of refugees and major terrorist attacks in cities like Ankara and Istanbul, the Turkish government prefers to let the Russians lead on Syria if Turkish interests are preserved and a face-saving back-out plan is engineered by Moscow.
Serious steps have already been taken in this direction, aimed solely at pleasing Erdogan, including allowing his tanks to invade the Syrian border city of Jarabulus and bombing Kurdish military positions in Al Hasaka.
In exchange for Russian cooperation on both issues, Erdogan has agreed to let the Syrian Army re-take Aleppo, and surrendered to Putin’s insistence on the fate of Al Assad.
Putin is investing in the US’s visible absence from the region during the last five months of President Obama’s tenure, and trying to hammer out an agreement that will become a de-facto reality by the time a new president reaches the Oval Office next January.
For his vision in Syria to pass he needs full Turkish cooperation and a thawing in Turkish-Syrian relations.
Putin’s suggested dates for the tripartite summit are 18-22 September.
Last week, a senior Syrian military delegation in Moscow to discussed details of the tripartite summit, headed by President of the National Security Bureau General Ali Mamlouk, and Commander of Military Intelligence General Mohammad Mhalla.
Meanwhile, the Commander of Turkish Intelligence General Hakan Fidan will be visiting Damascus for the same purpose between 10-15 September 2016.
If it happens, there will be no warmth at the summit, the Syrians have conditioned: no handshakes, no side-talks, just one photograph and high politics negotiations behind closed doors.
The political endgame will be signed off completely by the Russians and it will include a formula based on the Vienna communiqué of last October and UNSCR 2254.
It has to happen before the US elections, said source in Damascus, and all sides will market it and treat it as start of the “political transition.”
It won’t be a transition from government to opposition but rather from Baath rule into a power-sharing one that ushers gradual democracy on the long run.
Erdogan has seemingly agreed to Russian plans that all “sovereignty” portfolios: Foreign Affairs, Interior, Finance, Education, and Justice, are kept with the Syrian regime.
The remaining portfolios in the 30-man cabinet will be divided equally in tens, between the regime, the opposition (without going into detail which opposition this would be) and independents.
The Syrians have seemingly agreed to appoint three vice-presidents: one independent, one opposition, and one government figure.
The transition period will then start and last for 18-months, and it will supervise drafting of a new constitution, restoring calm to different cities and towns, and combatting terrorism.
At the end it will also supervise parliamentary and presidential elections, and if Putin gets his way, Al Assad is entitled to run for a new tenure at the president, which will last until 2024.
Syrian-Turkish relations were always strained after collapse of the Ottoman Empire back in 1918. When the two republics were young, they often clashed politically, with the Turks accusing Arab nationalists in Damascus of betraying the Ottoman crown, and consecutive governments in Damascus accusing the Turks of having been an occupying force, no different from French colonisers.
In 1939, the Turks reached a deal with the French mandate regime in Syria, calling for a step-by-step annexation of the Sanjak of Alexanderetta, a narrow coastal plain backed by a chain of mountains on the lower valley of the Orontes River.
Its main city was Antioch, a prosperous metropolis that Turkey laid claim to after World War I.
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres had fixed the post-Ottoman Syrian-Turkish border, giving Alexanderetta to Syria. Prosperity in the post-war era had muzzled dissent in the Sanjak, but due to the world depression, ethnic and religious communities began sinking back into communal loyalties, inspired no doubt by the surge in Syrian and Turkish nationalism.
Relations never recovered after the Turkish annexation of Alexanderetta, and were on the verge of a complete show-down when in 1998, the Turkish army amassed on the Syrian border, threatening war with Damascus if Al Assad did not extradite Abdullah Ocelan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who was operating from Syria and leading a guerrilla war against the Turkish government.
Ocelan was forced to leave and eventually captured by the Turks, and remains in Turkish custody until today.
Relations gradually improved in the upcoming years, when Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezar took part in Al Assad’s funeral in June 2000.
When the AKP came to power in Turkey, then-Prime Minister Erdogan put full focus on Syria, boosting trade and commerce, lifting visas for Syrians, and investing in a strong personal friendship with President Bashar Al Assad.
The relationship collapsed at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, when the Turks pushed for a power-sharing formula between Al Assad and the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Diplomatic relations were subsequently severed, and the Turks have since been the main political and financial backers of the Syrian Opposition, establishing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the summer of 2011, followed by the Syrian National Council (SNC).
For the past five years, Erdogan has not missed an opportunity to call for Al Assad’s downfall while as recently as last April, Al Assad accused Erdogan of being a “butcher” and “thug.”
More recently, thanks to Russian mediation, the relationship has somewhat cooled. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has twice called for normalisation with Damascus while Syrian state-run media has stopped accusing Turkey of being behind the battles of Aleppo, putting full blame on Qatar and Saudi Arabia.