Russia’s defense minister received his counterparts from Iran, Syria and Turkey on Tuesday for talks as 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 normalize Syrian-Turkish relations.”
Moscow has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, partnering with Iran to allow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to regain control of most of the country, while Turkey has backed armed opposition to Assad for the past 12 years. of conflict.
While most 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 after of the civil war that has killed nearly 500,000 people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population.
In December, Moscow hosted a surprise meeting of the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers, the first such meeting since Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war began in 2011. And earlier this month, senior Russian diplomats , Turkey, Syria and Iran met in Moscow for two days of talks aimed at setting the stage for a meeting of the four countries’ foreign ministers.
The efforts towards a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under intense internal pressure to send Syrian refugees back amid a sharp economic downturn and growing anti-refugee sentiment. He faces presidential and parliamentary elections in May.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in its reading of the talks on Tuesday that the parties “reaffirmed their commitment to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the need to intensify efforts to enable 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 the groups terrorists and extremists on Syrian territory. and efforts for the return of Syrian refugees.
The statement said the parties also stressed 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 received Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Syrian and Iranian counterparts for separate bilateral talks.
Turkey has de facto control over large swaths of northwestern Syria, and the Assad government has described the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syrian territory as a prerequisite for normalizing ties.
But even as Turkey has supported Syrian opposition fighters in the north, Ankara and Damascus are equally appalled by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria. Turkey-backed opposition fighters have clashed with the SDF in the past, accusing it of being an arm of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The PKK has for decades waged an insurgency inside Turkey.
The Assad government has portrayed the SDF as a secessionist force that has been stealing the country’s wealth while controlling Syria’s major oil fields.
The Russian Defense Ministry noted that during the talks on Tuesday “particular attention was paid to countering terrorist threats and combating all extremist groups on Syrian territory.”
Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Türkiye.