On August 11, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that he had a brief meeting with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in October in Serbia’s capital Belgrade.
Speaking to reporters on the last day of the 13th Ambassadors Conference in Turkey’s capital Ankara, Cavusoglu called for a “reconciliation in Syria.” The call was a step away from Ankara’s former policy on Syria which called for the overthrow of the Damascus government.
“We need to bring the opposition and regime together for reconciliation somehow, there will be no permanent peace otherwise,” the minister said.
Cavusoglu went on to highlight the necessity of a strong central administration in Damascus in order to prevent the disintegration of Syria.
“To prevent the division of Syria, there must be a strong administration in Syria. The will that can dominate every corner of its lands can only be achieved through unity and solidarity,” he told reporters.
The minister said he briefly spoke to Mekdad at the Belgrade summit. He also revealed that the Turkish and Syrian intelligence services had also began communicating. Damascus has not responded to these remarks, yet.
Turkey has been backing Syrian rebels against government forces since the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011. In the last few years, Ankara became the main military backer of the remaining rebels in the country’s northern region.
Following a recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about intelligence cooperation with the Damascus government against what he called “terrorist groups” in Syria. Later, the Turkish media reported ongoing preparations for a phone call between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Cavusoglu’s surprise remarks, which were likely meant to set the stage for a rapprochement with Damascus, triggered rebels who took to the streets in several Turkish-occupied areas in northern Syria to protest against the shift in Ankara’s policy. The protesters went as far as burning Turkish flag and harassing Turkish military personnel.
On August 12, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement stressing its support to the “political Syrian opposition” and blaming Damascus for the failure of the political process in Syria. The statement was clearly meant to appease the rebels. However, it didn’t backtrack on key issues Cavusoglu and Erdogan talked about, like intelligence cooperation with Damascus.
Russia has been making efforts to restore relations between Turkey and Syria for a few years. Ankara’s current moves in this direction are likely motivated by the growing threat of Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Erdogan may be also trying to resolve the issue of Syrian refugees in Turkey before the elections next year. Many Turkish voters believe that rapprochement with Damascus is the answer to these problems.