The past as prologue: Syria and the Adana Accord

The Adana option once proved itself as a workable model to address strategic Syrian and Turkish interests.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A Syrian regime soldier holds up his weapon in Damascus, last April. (AP)
Back in control. A Syrian regime soldier holds up his weapon in Damascus, last April. (AP)

One chapter is closing on the Syrian war and another is opening.

The Assad government defeated its enemies in the moderate opposition. The Islamic State (ISIS) will soon lose its last territorial foothold in the country.

Of all Syrian President Bashar Assad’s opponents, only al-Nusra Front remains as a coherent fighting force, controlling more than 70% of the area around Idlib, but there is a rare unanimity among all parties to the conflict that al-Nusra has no role in Syria’s future. Sooner or later it will be crushed.

No such consensus exists about the future of north-eastern Syria, which is controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The region from Manbij eastward along the Euphrates includes approximately 30% of the country. Rich in agriculture and oil, the area is the only remaining hot front along Syria’s borders.

Even before the surprise announcement in December that the United States would withdraw its forces from the conflict, the future of the area and its relationship to whomever rules in Damascus was working its way to the top of both Syria’s and the international community’s agenda.

Now, with US forces packing to leave, the race to shape the area’s future — and with it that of post-war Syria as a whole — is in full swing. The summit in Sochi, Russia, February 14, which brought Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents together, is the most recent example of this effort.

Turkey stands on one side of the divide, arguing for the dismantling of the YPG as a fighting and governing force and its replacement in Syria by Turkey and its Syrian proxies. The Assad government and the YPG support the return of the regime, with the latter demanding a greater measure of regional autonomy.

The contrasting demands for the YPG-controlled area produced a dangerous stalemate that may result in a Turkish assault across the border even before the United States folds up its tent sometime in spring.

The failure of any one party to impose its vision for the future is leading to the resurrection of the Adana Accord as an acceptable if not preferred framework for reaffirming Syrian sovereignty, averting war between Syria and Turkey, establishing an agreed upon Syrian framework for addressing the demands of Syria’s Kurdish community and accelerating the re-establishment of Syrian governance and control along the shared Syrian-Turkish border.

The Adana Accord has already prevented war between Syria and Turkey. In 1998, the understandings reached between the two parties committed Syria to end its backing for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, preventing a Turkish invasion to destroy the organisation’s presence in Syria along the shared border.

Today, as Syria seeks to rebuild its security architecture along its frontiers, the accord is viewed with varying degrees of enthusiasm, offering all parties a way out of the dangerous stalemate in north-eastern Syria.

Washington and its allies in the West are opposed in principle to any understanding that requires acknowledging reconciliation with the Assad regime but the Trump administration has few tools to impose its will. Beginning with efforts of its allies in the YPG to establish a dialogue with Damascus last summer, Washington’s confused efforts since December to construct an agreement have been rejected by everyone.

The US policy is fatally compromised by its disregard for the guiding principle of every successful diplomatic effort to reconcile warring demands in the region since the Lausanne Conference in 1923 — the primacy of state sovereignty. US policy is built on various options of continuing foreign occupation of the region held by the YPG, part of its central effort to deny Syria sovereign control of the territory or the frontier with Turkey.

In contrast, the Adana Accord creates a recognised “hard border” between Ankara and Damascus and enshrines the sovereign responsibility of each country for maintaining peace along the shared frontier. Only if Syria fails to fulfill these commitments and becomes a protected haven for the Kurdish militants is a Turkish military response sanctified.

Russia has emerged as the influential champion of the Adana model, as part of its support for a broader intra-Syrian dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds.

In recent months, Moscow has mounted a persistent but low-key effort to establish the Adana principles as an acceptable way forward; protecting Turkey by removing the spectre of a hostile Kurdish military force along its border, satisfying the central Syrian demand for a restoration of its sovereignty throughout the country and offering Kurds a mechanism for addressing if not necessarily satisfying its demands for regional autonomy outlined in a ten-point paper already under discussion with Damascus.

Turkish and YPG officials downplay their interest in the Adana model but, after outlining its shortcomings, both note with a degree of resignation that “in the end one must be practical.”

Damascus has offered what is for the taciturn regime a ringing endorsement of the idea. “Syria,” notes a communique reported in state news agency SANA, “stresses that activation of the [Adana] agreement can be done by making the situation on the borders the way it used to be before between the two countries.”

In contrast to the “chaos” — the word used by a senior Turkish intimate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — that in their view characterises US policy, the understandings reached between Turkey and Syria in 1998 and now placed on the agenda by Moscow offer a tested framework to restore a hard border between Ankara and Damascus, return the issue of the Kurdish military for resolution as part of a reconstituted national Syrian Arab Army and re-establish the central governing and administrative authority of the central government as part of a broader intra-Syrian mechanism for addressing longstanding Kurdish grievances.

Wishing and hoping are never good guides to policy making, especially when it comes to Syria, nor are formulas meant to increase the cost of Syria’s uneasy post-war transition.

The Adana option once proved itself as a workable model to address strategic Syrian and Turkish interests. Parties looking for an acceptable diplomatic road map for the future would do well to revive it.