Turkey, Syria Defense Ministers Meet in Moscow

ISTANBUL—Turkey’s defense minister and intelligence chief held talks with their Syrian counterparts in Moscow on Wednesday, the first formal, high-level meeting between the two Middle East governments since the eruption of a civil war in Syria in 2011.

The meeting, attended by senior Russian officials, came as Ankara is beginning to open a dialogue with Damascus after more than a decade of hostility. Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

was the chief foreign supporter of an armed rebellion that sought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said the officials discussed “the Syrian crisis, refugee issue and efforts for a joint struggle against all terrorist organizations on Syrian soil,” during the meeting in Moscow.  

The officials agreed on “the need for the continuation of joint dialogue” to achieve stability in Syria, according to Syria’s state-run news agency SANA.

Mr. Erdogan’s opening to the Syrian regime represents the reversal of one of the defining foreign-policy choices of his nearly 20 years in power. Under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey accepted millions of Syrian refugees and offered support to rebel groups whose leaders have for years moved freely between Turkey and areas of northern Syria under their control. The decision embroiled Turkey in years of war, bringing it to the brink of direct conflict with Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter in 2015.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking Russian approval for a new Turkish military incursion against Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria.


adem altan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The Turkish government has gradually shifted its policy on Syria in recent years after Mr. Assad gained the upper hand over the rebels due in part to military intervention by Russia, which launched a bombing campaign against the rebels in 2015. 

The meeting also comes as Mr. Erdogan deepens his relationship with Moscow, seeking to straddle the divide between Russia and the West during the war in Ukraine. Under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has expanded trade and energy ties with Russia while also selling weapons to Ukraine and facilitating negotiations on a range of issues between the two countries.

Mr. Erdogan has sought to use international influence gained from his role in the Ukraine crisis to advance Turkey’s interests. He is seeking Russian approval for a new Turkish military incursion against Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria. Turkey has fought a slow-burning war with Kurdish separatists for decades.

The Turkish president has been calling for such an attack for months, with his demands gathering urgency following a deadly bombing in Istanbul in November that the Turkish government blamed on Kurdish militants. The Kurdish groups denied any role in the attack.

The other major foreign powers in Syria’s ongoing war—including Russia, the U.S., and Iran—have expressed disapproval for a new Turkish ground invasion that could further destabilize the region. Turkey launched a campaign of airstrikes in November that briefly led to a halt of joint operations between the U.S. military and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which are part of a coalition fighting Islamic State extremists in Syria.

A cargo vessel carried Ukrainian grain in Istanbul in November. Turkey’s president has been seeking to straddle the divide between Russia and the West during the war in Ukraine.


ozan kose/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Erdogan said earlier in December that a meeting among Turkish and Syrian defense and intelligence chiefs could be a step toward meetings among foreign ministers and eventually the leaders of both countries, part of what he said could advance a joint battle against terrorist groups.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in August that he had a brief, informal conversation with his Syrian counterpart during a conference in Serbia nearly a year earlier.  

Turkey’s defense minister,

Hulusi Akar,

who attended the Moscow meeting, said earlier in December that Turkish officials have been in talks with Russia about opening up Syrian airspace for a potential military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian branch. 

Write to Jared Malsin at [email protected]

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