May 14 2019

Assad says direct meetings taking place between Turkish, Syrian officers - Aydınlık

(Correction: Yuva's column was published on May 12)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is willing to meet his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after nearly a decade on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, reported Mehmet Yuva, a Syrian academic of Turkish origin based at the University of Damascus.

Meetings have already taken place between Syrian and Turkish military and intelligence officers, but Erdoğan’s government has been unable to agree on how to approach Syria, Yuva quoted Assad as saying.

“Turkey is an important country and we are open to cooperation with it”, Yuva quoted Assad as saying in his May 12 column for the left-wing nationalist Turkish daily Aydınlık.

The Syrian president’s comments came in response to questions Aydınlık sent to him through intermediaries, said Yuva, who has reportedly acted as an interpreter during high-level meetings between Turkish and Syrian officials.

They also came a short time before Assad's forces began a new operation against rebel groups in Idlib, a province overseen by Turkey.

“If it is in line with Syria’s interests and does not harm our sovereignty, we could meet with Erdoğan”, Assad reportedly said.

Erdoğan has been one of the strongest critics of Assad since the conflict broke out in 2011.

However, Russian and Iranian support has allowed Assad’s forces to systematically defeat rebel groups across the country, and with the opposition boxed in to Idlib province, Turkey’s priorities have changed to opposing Kurdish groups in northern Syria and preventing conflict in Idlib.

Assad said there were serious differences of opinion on Syria in Erdoğan’s government, and that Turkish military officers had been far more “sensitive and understanding” than politicians on events in Turkey’s neighbour.

Despite the continuing rifts separating the countries, Assad said Syrian and Turkish officers had met to discuss “a number of important issues” at the Kassab border crossing linking northwest Syria to Turkey’s Hatay province.

A Syrian delegation also met Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan in the Iranian capital city of Tehran, Yuva quoted Assad as saying.

Any chance of renewed Turkish relations with Assad’s Syria are complicated by Turkey’s involvement in Idlib, the last province in Syria that remains under opposition control.

During a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, the Turkish president accused Assad’s regime of seeking to “sabotage” Turkish-Russian relations through its latest assault on Idlib, Erdoğan’s communications director said.

Last September Russia and Turkey signed a deal to prevent an attack by Assad’s forces on the northwestern province of Idlib. The province has since fallen almost completely under the control of jihadist groups barred by the agreement, making it a continuing source of pressure for Turkey.

Ankara fears a full-scale assault by Assad and his allies on Idlib would overwhelm opposition fighters and could potentially leave millions of refugees seeking to cross the Turkish border.

The deal with Russia aimed to prevent that outcome, but an onslaught by the al Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham has left most of Idlib and parts of neighbouring provinces under control of groups Russia had demanded were removed from the area under the deal.

Russia was also involved in the bombardment of Idlib over the weekend, France 24 reported.

At least 42 fighters were killed in clashes in Idlib, and regime bombardment of the province has severely damaged its health services.