Clock ticks for Erdogan to decide on Syria

Syrian-Kurdish talks, on hold for several months, need to be jump-started simultaneously, under Russian mediation.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Risks and uncertainties. Turkish soldiers stand guard on the sides of the road during a patrol around the Syrian border at the demilitarised zone, last March.(DPA)
Risks and uncertainties. Turkish soldiers stand guard on the sides of the road during a patrol around the Syrian border at the demilitarised zone, last March.(DPA)

BEIRUT - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is soon going to be announcing a decision on Syria, ahead of upcoming peace talks at the Kazakhstan capital, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana).

The Turkish leader is in hot water since his party’s stunning defeat in municipal elections, which cost him three major cities, including Istanbul.

One of his regional allies, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, has been overthrown, bringing back memories of Muhammad Morsi’s ouster in Egypt six years ago. Another ally, Fayez al-Sarraj in Libya, is facing uphill battle against a Saudi-backed military offensive led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Protests continue to snowball against Hamas rule in Gaza.

Erdogan cannot afford to lose any more friends — or territory.

He will soon be accepting a proposal put forth in January by Russian President Vladimir Putin, reviving the 1998 Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey. It restores Syrian authority to the entire border but makes it obligatory for Damascus to make sure that it remains free of any Kurdish presence.

It gives Erdogan the right to send troops into Syrian territory in pursuit of Kurdish separatists, should the Syrians fail in doing the job. The agreement, however, only allows him to enter after coordinating with the Syrians and doesn’t give him the right to stay inside Syria.

The Russians and Turks are discussing an amendment to the original agreement, deploying Russian military police along the borderline, to make doubly sure that Turkish security concerns are accommodated.

For that to happen, however, Syrian-Turkish relations need to be restored, after an 8-year suspension. Such an agreement requires security coordination, joint military committees and diplomatic relations between Ankara and Damascus. It also requires an end to the media war between the two countries.

This part of the deal is being negotiated by the Iranians, whose foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, travelled between Damascus and Ankara April 16-17, carrying messages whose answers are to be revealed at the Nur-Sultan talks.

The devil is always in the details. The obvious first obstacle is what to do with the 200 US troops who remain in the Kurdish areas and how US President Donald Trump will react to such a Russian-Turkish agreement. Both sides seem to believe that, apart from lip service, Trump will do nothing about it as long as it doesn’t threaten Kurdish presence in north-eastern Syria.

As for the US troops, the Russians, Turks and Syrians have agreed to go around them, treating them as invisible while making sure that nobody trespasses on their territory or catches them in any crossfire. Two hundred troops would deter neither the Russians nor the Turks from any joint action.

Some Kurds were pinning hopes on the remaining US troops but others argued otherwise, pointing to Trump’s abandonment of them, first in Iraq in September 2017 and then in Afrin in April 2018. Two hundred American troops are not enough to help them carve out a state or even establish a sustainable autonomous entity.

At the Nur-Sultan conference, Erdogan will sign off a continued de-militarisation of Idlib, which he had promised to cleanse from the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham by mid-October 2018, meaning the Russians will not march on the city, as they were expected to do this spring. This will spare Turkey — and Europe — a new wave of refugees.

In exchange, Erdogan will put off a military operation he was planning against the Kurdish towns of Kobane, Tall Rifat and Ras al-Ayn, to give the Adana Agreement a chance.

Syrian-Kurdish talks, on hold for several months, need to be jump-started simultaneously, under Russian mediation. The same old proposal is on the table: restoration of government rule in all areas held by the Kurds, in exchange for giving them the right to elect their own municipalities and governor and to keep their light arms, while surrendering heavy ones to the Russians once they assume their positions on the Syrian-Turkish borders. That, of course, would be music to the ears of Erdogan.

Another sticking point is what Erdogan will do with the approximated 70,000 Syrians on Turkish payroll, known as the National Liberation Army, who were bracing themselves for the new Kurdish offensive. They cannot be collectively pardoned and returned to Syria because Damascus would never allow it and Erdogan cannot welcome them in Turkey. For now, they will remain in Idlib but will that last? The truce in Idlib is temporary, after all.

Russia wants it restored completely, given that it lies within its sphere of influence within Syria, while Erdogan realises that he cannot keep it forever.

If accommodated properly on other issues, such as the Kurds and other cities under his control — Jarabulus, Azaz, al-Bab and Afrin — will Erdogan abandon those proxies as he did with other Syrians on his payroll, first in West Aleppo and then in East Ghouta, in 2016-18? After reaching an agreement with the Russians, he looked the other way as Russian warplanes pounded their strongholds to dust.

Those Syrian proxies were created for an objective, first to topple the regime in Damascus, which failed, and then to expand Erdogan’s geographic influence in Syria.

These are questions that are yet to be answered by Erdogan, who has seemingly decided to go full board into the Russian orbit, now convinced, just like the Kurds, that US President Donald Trump is a very unreliable ally.