The heads of Turkey’s and Syria’s intelligence service met on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow on Monday, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA reported.
Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, came together to discuss a ceasefire in Idlib and possible cooperation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Reuters said citing an unnamed Turkish official.
Although both sides have previously acknowledged that there had been intelligence contacts, the meeting was the first officially-confirmed senior-level contact since 2011 when a civil war erupted in Syria.
Syria’s top intelligence officer called on Turkey to withdraw immediately and fully from the whole Syrian territory, according to SANA.
“It [the meeting] does not change much on the ground [as] Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides over Idlib and will remain so,” Kyle Orton, an expert on Syria and terrorism, told Turkey’s state-run TRT World news channel on Tuesday.
Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at the SETA Foundation, said the meeting did not mean the two countries were getting closer.
“In fact, what comes out of this meeting can end up being a further strain in relations as well,” the analyst told TRT World.
Since April 2019, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have intensified attacks on Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory.
Turkey has been backing Syrian rebels fighting against the al-Assad regime, holding a number of military outposts there in their support.
Last week, Turkey and Russia had announced a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province with conflicting starting dates and continuing airstrikes.
Last month, a Turkish delegation paid a visit to Moscow, requesting a ceasefire in the province.
For the same purpose, Ankara signed another inconclusive de-escalation deal — the Sochi agreement — last year with Russia and Iran, both of which accuse it of not fulfilling its part to remove the Turkey-backed jihadist militants and heavy arms from the agreed territory.
Turkey is concerned about a new influx of people uprooted by the violence. As many as 300,000 Syrians are believed to have displaced in December alone due to the intensified offensive in the region, according to the United Nations (UN).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once strongly supported the ousting of al-Assad but later shifted his priority to refugee-related concerns, planning to set up a “safe zone” in the region to resettle Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
For that purpose, the Turkish president unilaterally ordered a Turkish incursion into Syria in October, ostensibly against the Western-backed YPG in October.
Ankara sees the YPG as terror organization due to its alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group fighting against the Turkish state since the early 1980s.
The MIT’s Fidan was in Moscow with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar who were discussing another international issue in which Turkey has become embroiled – the Libyan crisis.
Leaders of Libya’s two warring parties, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and military commander Khalifa Haftar, were in Moscow on Monday for talks on an unconditional and open-ended ceasefire.
The talks follow last week’s proposal by Russia and Turkey which have been backing the opposite sides as in the case of Syria.
However, Haftar left the peace talks on Monday without signing the ceasefire deal, rejecting Turkey’s involvement in the talks as a mediator.