Turkish, Syrian defense chiefs hold landmark meeting in Russia

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mahmoud Abbas gathered in a meeting hosted by Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday, in a landmark move marking the first official engagement between Damascus and Ankara after more than a decade.

Describing the unannounced meeting as “constructive,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said the officials discussed “the Syrian crisis, refugee problem and joint efforts to combat all terrorist organizations in Syria” during the talks. The three countries “agreed to continue” trilateral meetings to “ensure and maintain stability in Syria and in the region,” the ministry added.

The Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan and his Syrian, Russian counterparts also attended the meeting, according to the statement. An image released by the ministry showed Akar, Fidan and Turkey’s Ambassador to Moscow Mehmet Samsar walking shoulder to shoulder on the tarmac heading to the meeting.

Wednesday’s summit, which marks the first concrete sign of thaw in relations between two arch rivals Ankara and Damascus, came after a series of positive messages from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Damascus. Earlier this month he expressed an openness to meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying there was "no place for resentment in politics.”

The diplomatic ties between Ankara and Damascus were severed soon after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, with Erdogan labeling Assad as a “bloody murderer.” Ankara, which backs the Syrian rebels fighting against the Syrian government, controls a large chunk of territories in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s messages and the Wednesday meeting comes at a time when Ankara threatens to launch a fresh ground offensive against the US-allied Syrian Kurdish groups, citing national security concerns. Ankara equates the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has fought Ankara since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group. Turkey is seeking the Syrian government's cooperation against the Syrian Kurdish groups. Damascus, in turn, demands that Ankara withdraw its troops from Syria.

Until the Moscow summit, contacts between the two countries’ intelligence services were the sole direct dialogue channel between the two capitals. Fidan and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk reportedly met a couple of times starting in 2020 prior to the trilateral summit in Moscow on Wednesday with the January 2020 meeting between two spy chiefs being the first and only officially acknowledged contact.

Erdogan said he offered to Russian President Vladimir Putin to host tripartite meetings between the three countries’ defense and foreign ministers. “Following their meetings, let us get together as the leaders. I offered this to Mr. Putin and he received it positively,” he said.

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