Putin’s deal gives Erdogan a strong hand in Syria
BEIRUT - The multilayered Russian- Turkish agreement over Syria, reached in August, is still unfolding but all the signs are that it gives the Turks much of what they want in Syria, while Syrian President Bashar Assad gets a lot out of it, too.
The main point for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is that it secures firm Russian backing for Turkey’s adamant rejection of the establishment of a Kurdish state on its border with Syria that would inflame its own Kurdish problem.
Erdogan wants the Kurds’ long-cherished project eradicated and Russian President Vladimir Putin is lending a helping hand. He has closed the Moscow office of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of Turkey’s secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and waived his earlier support for Kurdish participation in the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.
In mid-August, the Syrian Air Force began pounding Hasakah, a strategic city in the north-eastern corner of Syria controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) since 2015.
The assault took most observers off-guard. Syrian Kurds have been largely neutral in the conflict between the Syrian government and the main rebel groups. Due to Turkey’s embrace of the Syrian opposition since 2011, the Kurds have refused to join any of the main political opposition groups.
They have collaborated with the Syrian Army and with both Russia and the United States in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Since the Russians intervened in Syria in September 2015, they have given the Kurds both arms and money, ostensibly to boost their positions in counterterrorism.
Never since 2011 had the Syrian Army struck at Kurdish positions — a feat now applauded by both Moscow and Ankara.
The Turkish-Russian deal seemingly calls for Syrian participation in the war on the Kurds in exchange for two things: Turkey will help exterminate ISIS on Syria’s northern border and turn a blind eye as Syrian troops retake the strategic city of Aleppo.
The assault on Hasakah lasted for one week and sent a strong message to Syrian Kurds. Immediately afterward, Turkish tanks and special forces thrust across the border, expelling ISIS from the city of Jarabulus.
The Russians did not complain. Instead, they issued a mild statement calling on Turkey to “coordinate” its military activities with the Damascus regime that Moscow wants to keep intact.
In the Syrian capital, apart from a knee-jerk condemnation by the Foreign Ministry, no action was taken to counter the Turkish invasion — probably at the urging of the Kremlin.
Erdogan was seemingly being accommodated on two fronts; Jarabulus and Hasakah and it was time to repay the favour.
In return, Ankara remained silent on Russian plans to send ground troops to hold the Castello Road, which until July was the Syrian opposition’s main lifeline, running from Turkey to the then-besieged eastern sector of Aleppo in northern Syria.
The road has been held by government troops since mid-July. The Russians suggest that humanitarian aid be allowed into regime-controlled western Aleppo, with 1.2 million inhabitants, and the rebel-held eastern sector, where 250,000-300,000 civilians are trapped.
The Syrian opposition is asking that any aid be funnelled through the rebel-held Ramousa district in south-western Aleppo but the Russians have curtly refused, arguing that the route is unsafe and controlled by warring militias.
Moscow argues that the aid be shipped via the Castello Road, which will be jointly manned by Russian and Syrian troops.
This proposal, which the Turks have not rejected, calls for Russian checkpoints and observation units on everything entering or leaving Aleppo.
If that comes to pass, it would be the first deployment of Russian ground troops outside of their Hmeimim airbase near the Mediterranean port of Latakia.
Opposition groups are furious with Turkey’s silence over the Russian proposal and Syrian Kurds feel stabbed in the back by both Damascus and Moscow.
The Erdogan-Putin agreement seemed to take another dramatic turn in late August when the Syrian Army retook the town of Daraya on Damascus’ south-western edge. Daraya has long been a symbol of the anti-Assad rebellion. The town was one of the first to take up arms against the regime in 2012.
The fighters who remained in Daraya surrendered to Damascus in late August. They had no choice. They were starving under a regime blockade as well as a Russian air blitz that began in September 2015.
Ankara did not say a single word about Daraya, deepening suspicions that Daraya, Jarabulus and Hasakah were part of the Turkish- Russian agreement and were being sacrificed by different players on the Syrian chessboard.
Ultimately, the Russians are accommodating Erdogan, with the fate of Aleppo, once Syria’s economic capital, as the big prize. It has immense political significance and controlling it is a paramount objective for everyone.
If the Turks allow Syrian government troops to overrun Aleppo, with Russian soldiers manning the city’s gateways, it would mean the end of the uprising in northern Syrian.
Turkey would be content, secure in the belief that no serious Kurdish threat is now possible. Russia would be happy retaking Aleppo and shutting down a major front and the regime would be happy too as it secures the countryside around the capital as it did in Daraya.