Erdogan’s pact with Putin changes war in Syria

Sunday 02/04/2017
Unlikely ally. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tour the Kremlin after talks in Moscow, on March 10th. (AP)

Beirut - For six years, Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Er­dogan’s Syria policy was focused mainly on neo-Ot­tomanism, re-establishing the political, economic and cultural supremacy it enjoyed for centuries as the Ottoman empire.

To accomplish his goal, Erdogan needed to topple the Damascus re­gime, eradicate both the Kurds and the Islamic State (ISIS) and set up a safe zone to house millions of Syr­ian refugees who have become an economic and security threat inside Turkey.

When the Russians intervened in Syria in September 2015, Erdogan realised that he could no longer top­ple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, so he decided to shat­ter it, militarily, economically and politically.

To do that, he had to get close to whoever was ready to help him achieve his aims, whether it was ISIS, other Islamic militias, Saudi Arabia, the Americans or even Rus­sia, with whom Turkey was at dag­gers drawn at the time.

Oddly enough, Erdogan found an unlikely ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin and sought to ac­commodate him on certain issues if the Russian leader agreed to let him continue his proxy war with the Syrian regime and carve out entire chunks of northern Syria.

It turned the many-sided Syrian war, already a cauldron of bewilder­ing complexity, on its head and sent it hurtling into unknown territory.

After a meeting in Saint Peters­burg in August 2016, Erdogan got the green light to invade that region and occupy cities he found worth keeping. In return, Putin had free rein to overrun the strategic city of Aleppo.

They met again in Moscow on March 10th, where, an official spokesman said, they discussed Syria “extensively”

Erdogan asked Putin to sever ties with Kurdish militias active in northern Syria that Turkey consid­ers to be “terrorist organisations”.

This time, however, Putin, seem­ingly enraged over the killing of four Russian soldiers by Turkish-backed militias near Palmyra in February, cold-shouldered Erdog­an. Putin was also miffed at Erdog­an’s insistence on expanding the Turkish buffer zone without first getting the Kremlin’s approval.

The two men had agreed that this zone would include the bor­der cities of Jarabulus and Azaz as well as al-Bab, 40km north-east of Aleppo.

However, the ambitious Erdogan started inching towards Raqqa, de facto capital of the now-shrinking ISIS caliphate, and Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates, two cities that were not in the zone agreed upon in August.

Not only did Erdogan sidestep Putin, he tried to strike a back­channel deal with the Americans via US President Donald Trump, explicitly asking for permission to march on Manbij.

Raqqa has been marked as US battle territory, while Manbij, much to Erdogan’s horror, was lib­erated by US-backed Kurdish mili­tias in August and handed over to the Syrian Army early in March. That further soured relations be­tween Turkey and Russia.

More recently, a Turkish soldier was killed on the border, report­edly by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that receives Russian support and arms even though Ankara brands its members terrorists for their alli­ance with Turkey’s own separatist Kurdish minority.

Days later, Russian troops were deployed to Afrin, a strategic Kurd­ish town in north-western Syria not far from the Turkish border, in the Kurdish cantons west of the Euphrates, which are generally considered to be within Russian-controlled territory.

Photographs of tanks flying Rus­sian flags rumbling through the streets of Afrin raised eyebrows in Ankara and as did images on social media of Russian officers in Af­rin wearing YPG insignia on their uniforms, waving the group’s red-starred flag.

Moscow’s relationship with the Kurds is little more than a bargain­ing chip used in the complex web of Middle Eastern diplomacy but it has incensed Erdogan.

He decided to escalate the swell­ing rift with Moscow, raising vio­lence on the Syrian battlefield and striking within Russia’s spheres of direct influence. Late in March, two major rebel assaults took place in Damascus and the Hama coun­tryside. Both had Turkey’s finger­prints all over them.

The objective was to remind Russia that Turkish-backed mili­tias were still there, still armed and still capable of striking behind en­emy lines.

The Turks appeared to be saying that, despite Russia’s massive mili­tary support for Assad, the Syrian capital remains dangerously vul­nerable.

The rebels captured three towns north and west of Hama, employ­ing suicide bombers, rockets and artillery, while they struck in the heavily guarded heart of Damas­cus to shatter Moscow’s boast that such assaults were history.

Politically, the rebels’ surprise offensive seriously undermined the turgid peace process, possibly wrecking it. Turkish-backed op­position figures boycotted talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in mid-March.

Moscow refused to postpone the talks, despite the absence of the opposition delegation, belit­tling Turkey’s position as one of the three mutual guarantors of the Astana process.

Also in March, the Turks nudged their Syrian proxies to finish off both Geneva IV and Geneva V, the UN-mandated peace process in Switzerland, simply by revisiting a clause that the Russians would never accept: Demanding Assad’s immediate resignation.

With that single issue once again used as a benchmark for any agree­ment, the war will likely drag on and on, putting Erdogan in re­newed confrontation with Putin, Assad and the mullahs of Tehran.