Onur Sinan Güzaltan, United World International columnist, asked retired Russian diplomat and Middle East expert Vyacheslav Matuzov about the normalization steps between Türkiye and Syria.
Matuzov, who has worked in Arab countries for many years, talked about Russia’s view on Türkiye and its Middle East strategy.
Why is Russia mediating the negotiations between Türkiye and Syria? What is Moscow’s political and strategic goal?
Russia and Syria have been allies for a long time. Our friendship dates back to 1970, when Hafez al-Assad came to power. I would like to remind that the military coup was not carried out by the Soviets but by the Syrian Baath party.
At that time, the Soviet Union was working to develop good relations with the countries in the region. We have developed very good relations with Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Soviets helped Egypt build modern infrastructure during this period. We tried to develop good relations with Syria because they were ideologically not far from us.
Friendships with Syria, Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya and Algeria reflected the strategic line of Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East. I should note that at that time the borders of the Soviet Union extended to Tbilisi and therefore the Middle East was the Near East for us.
We supported the establishment and continuity of independent states in this region.
During this period, we did not have good relations with NATO member Türkiye. We went through the missile crisis and so on, but from the 60s onwards relations began to normalize.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, we had to pay less attention to our relations in the Middle East, even it dropped down to the level ‘zero’.
Yelstin severed our ties with Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria. Before that, there were 6000 Soviet military experts in Syria.
When ISIS launched a war against the Syrian government in 2011, the Russian government remained silent. At first, when the Syrian government asked Moscow for aid, it received no positive response.
But Russia’s attitude began to change in 2012.
Recall that the Americans started to accuse Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons then. We knew that the Germans supplied the chemical materials in Syria.
They offered similar justifications when they attacked Iraq under Saddam Hussein. I met Saddam in Damascus three weeks before the American invasion in March 2003.
With outbreak of the crisis in 2011, ISIS attacks on Damascus increased and in 2012, there was even the possibility of ISIS seizing chemical materials in Syria.
We asked the Americans to put pressure on the Syrian government to hand over the chemical materials to international organizations.
“The Maidan Coup in Ukraine was a response to Russia’s Syria policy”
Are you saying that Russia cooperated with the Americans for the handover of chemical material from Syria?
Yes, because if these materials fell into the hands of ISIS and similar terrorist organizations, they would pose a threat to the whole region.
And the Syrian government handed over all these materials to a US ship in the Mediterranean Sea. After that, it was determined by international organizations that there were no chemical materials left in Syria.
But then, in 2013, the US declared that it was directly going to attack Syria and overthrow the Assad government. Until then Russia had not intervened in the crisis in Syria and had refrained from providing military aid.
In 2013, Medvedev’s term ended and Vladimir Putin was reelected as President. Putin met with Obama and the Americans were forced to renounce direct intervention in Syria. In this meeting, Putin stated that Russia would respond militarily if the US intervened militarily in Syria.
The US response to Russia’s move was in Ukraine. The Maidan movement was organized by the US. In 2014 Ukraine had elections. Yanukovych met with the presidents of France and Germany and signed an agreement that the elections would be transparent and fair. But before the elections, the US staged a military coup in Ukraine. US policy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East were interlinked.
In 2015, the Russian government decided to send troops to Syria. After this, Russian-Syrian relations began to resemble those of the Soviet era.
Can Russia’s decision to send troops to Syria be seen as a response to the US military coup in Ukraine?
Yes, exactly. We were once again at odds with the US. We came to realize that our neutral stance in the Middle East was politically costing us a lot. This marks a historic shift. We decided to protect our interests not only within our borders but also across borders.
“We definitely do not support the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria”
You described the historical dimension of relations between Russia and Syria. Coming back to the present: what is the geopolitical goal of Russia as a mediator between Türkiye and Syria?
The warplane crisis between Türkiye and Russia was a critical turning point. After the resolution of this incident, Ankara-Moscow relations started to recover and develop.
The Astana process was very important and fruitful. We tried to offer a real and honest solution to resolve the Syrian crisis.
We understand Türkiye’s security concerns regarding its borders. Normalization between Türkiye and Syria will help address these concerns.
We are in favor of the territorial integrity of Syria. We absolutely do not support the establishment of a Kurdish state in the north of Syria. We are absolutely against the division of Syria. We do not support Rojava and similar structures.
The aim of negotiation between Russia and the Kurdish groups
In the event of a Russian mediated agreement between Türkiye and Syria, what will happen to the US-backed Kurdish groups in the north of Syria?
There is only one way out of the crisis: unitary, sovereign and independent Syria.
We had relations with Kurds. We were in touch with Mustafa Barzani. Yevgeny Primakov was the Middle East correspondent of Pravda newspaper before becoming Foreign Minister. He was in charge of relations with Barzani, not as a diplomat but as a journalist. We had talks with Mustafa Barzani many times in Northern Iraq.
But Mustafa Barzani was not on the side of the Soviet Union, on the contrary, he was on the US side. If you want proof, look where he was treated when he was ill and where he died: In the US.
It is a lie that the Soviets wanted a Kurdistan state. The aim of our engagement with Kurds was to persuade them not to take steps that would divide the Iraqi state.
You have stated that Russia is in favor of unitary Syria, but Russia supported United Nations Resolution No. 2254, which envisages a democratic and federal transition process in Syria. Doesn’t this contradict what you said?
Syrians are the ones to decide on Syria’s internal affairs. Neither Russia nor Türkiye, Iran and the US will decide on the fate of Syria. We never intended to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.
We are in favor of the unitary structure of Syria, not its division. If the US demands us to respect the rights of minorities, of course we are not against that, but not in a way that would divide Syria.
What is your assessment on Israel’s attacks on Syria and its support to Kurdish groups in the region?
Israel supports Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish groups have been hosted many times in Tel Aviv. Kurdish groups see Israel as an ally. You can see this from open sources. Israel and the US seek the establishment of a Kurdish state.
Israel wants to weaken Syria for its own interests and uses all means to do so. It cooperates with all these kind of groups to weaken Syria. Israel sees a strong neighbor as a threat.
Do you know where the leaders of Islamic groups who fled Suwayda (a region in Syria) in the face of the advance of the Syrian army took refuge? In Israel. Hundreds of them.
Also the US is preventing the Kurdish groups from negotiating with the Syrian government.