Turkey-Syria summit postponed at last minute as Russia nudges rivals to reconcile

The two countries’ deputy foreign ministers plus those of Russia and Iran had been due to meet to discuss further rapprochement efforts.

A planned meeting of senior Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Iranian diplomats was reportedly postponed Thursday following a series of talks aimed at resetting in ties between Ankara and Damascus.

The deputy foreign ministers of the four countries most deeply involved in the Syrian civil war had been due to talk in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday but the meeting was deferred to an unspecified date for technical reasons, according to Reuters.

The meeting was supposedly to pave the way for a higher-level meeting of foreign ministers following a breakthrough meeting of the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers in December.

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan, however, was quoted by Syrian pro-government media outlets as saying that the Moscow meeting was “still under discussion.”

Instead of the four-way Moscow summit, Syrian President Bashar Assad demanded the full withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria ahead of any potential meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His comments came following a meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

“With regards to a meeting with Erdogan, it’s tied to us reaching a stage where Turkey is clearly and unambiguously ready for the full withdrawal of the Turkish military from the territory of Syria, for the cessation of supporting terrorism and restoration of the situation to the state it was before the start of the war in Syria,” Assad told Russian state media outlets.

“This is the only situation when it would then be possible to have a meeting between me and Erdogan. Aside from that, what’s the value of such a meeting and why would we do it if it would not achieve final results for the war in Syria?”

Ankara has stepped back from the position that it held for most of the conflict, which marked its 12th anniversary on Wednesday. Having previously labeled Assad a murderer and a terrorist, Erdogan has recently signaled he is willing to talk with the Syrian leader.

In January the Turkish president, who had previously demanded Assad’s removal before Syrian talks could take place, raised the possibility of a joint meeting with Assad and Putin in the interests of regional peace and stability.

Turkey controls territory in northwestern Syria — its troops backed by militias seeking to overthrow Assad — following three large-scale military operations in Syria since 2016. As recently as November, Turkish warplanes struck Kurdish militant bases in northeast Syria.

The Kremlin has played a major role in reducing the tensions between Ankara and Damascus. The introduction of Russian forces in 2015 swung the Syrian conflict in Assad’s favor while economic and military ties with Turkey have seen Moscow’s influence there grow as well.

For the past year Erdogan has threatened a fresh ground offensive against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, spearheaded by Kurdish militants with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a 39-year insurgency against Ankara.

Following a meeting with Putin in August, Erdogan said he had been promised Russia’s go-ahead for the operation if he reestablished relations with Assad.

Commenting on Wednesday’s Putin-Assad meeting, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said they had discussed relations between Turkey and Syria and Russia’s role in the rapprochement process.

Assad’s office said in a statement that the leaders had talked about “regional initiatives supported by Moscow” and that Assad emphasized support for dialogue “if it leads to … the unity and integrity of Syrian territory … and the exit of illegal foreign forces.”

Ankara, meanwhile, has been engaging in diplomatic talks with Russia on the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal, which expires on Saturday.

The initiative, which was signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations in July, has seen some 24 million tons of grain and other agricultural products shipped from three Ukrainian ports, the Turkish Defense Ministry said, helping lower global food prices from record highs.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Wednesday that Turkey was seeking to extend the agreement for a further 120 days while Russia was pushing for the renewal period to be halved.

“We will continue our contacts on the issue of 120 days instead of two months,” Akar said. “The UN also thinks the same as us … I hope we will try to solve this in a positive way in a short time.”

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov praised Akar for his “unwavering commitment” to the agreement and claimed Russian attempts to limit the extension to 60 days contradicted the original deal.

Moscow maintains that a parallel agreement has failed to fully open the door to Russian exports of grain and fertilizer through the Black Sea. Banking restrictions and high insurance costs — a consequence of its war against Ukraine — have reduced its ability to export fertilizer.

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