Russia is nudging Turkey to seek ties with Assad over Syria security concerns

Putin praised Turkey for helping stabilise Idlib but emphasised that more joint efforts were needed to combat militants.
Sunday 27/01/2019
A partnership of convenience. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave after a joint news conference in Moscow, January 23.                          (Reuters)
A partnership of convenience. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave after a joint news conference in Moscow, January 23. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Russia is trying to channel Turkish demands for a Syrian buffer zone into a security model involving a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus after years of enmity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose role as top power broker in Syria has been boosted by the announcement of the US withdrawal from the country, used this year’s first face-to-face meeting — January 23 in Moscow — with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remind his guest of a Turkish-Syrian treaty on terrorism. Putin said the accord could serve as an instrument to calm Ankara’s security concerns over the presence of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Erdogan, who cooperates with Putin regarding Syria, wants to create a buffer zone in northern Syria to contain the Kurds but chances for Turkey to get full control over such a zone are slim, analysts said.

“I very much doubt the Russians would agree to the establishment of a buffer zone,” Roland Popp, a security analyst in Zurich focusing on Middle Eastern affairs, said via e-mail. “It is much more likely that Moscow is trying to convince the Turks to accept the return of Syrian government control in the north-east as the most effective approach to contain Kurdish ambitions and also in order to solve the refugee problem in the long term.”

Erdogan has been a hard-line critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad for years and has called for Assad’s removal from power. There are no official contacts between Ankara and Damascus but Putin appears to be pushing Erdogan into accepting an arrangement with Damascus. If the Kremlin’s plan works, it would be a big step for Assad to regain international recognition after almost eight years of war.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow after almost two hours of talks with Erdogan, Putin said Russia respected Turkish interests, especially in the field of security.

“There is a treaty between the Syrian Arab government and the Turkish Republic from 1998, which deals especially with terrorism,” Putin said, as reported by the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

He was referring to the Adana Protocol of 1998, in which Syria agreed to end support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group fighting Ankara since 1984, to close PKK camps on its territory and to recognise the PKK as a terrorist organisation. Turkey and Syria also resolved to establish a direct telephone line between security services of the two countries to prevent PKK cross-border activities.

Turkey regards the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has created an autonomous region along the southern Turkish border, as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate and a security threat. Ankara is planning a military intervention to push the YPG back from the border but Putin said the 1998 agreement could serve as a starting point to address Turkish concerns. “It can cover many issues to safeguard Turkey’s security, especially on the southern border,” he said.

Analysts said Moscow is, in effect, telling Erdogan that Ankara will not get what it wants in northern Syria without some cooperation with Damascus.

“‘You have to talk to Assad,’ is what Putin is trying to say,” Orhan Gafarli of the Ankara Policy Centre said. “‘Don’t create the safe zone east of the Euphrates without talking to Assad.’”

Commenting on Putin’s remarks on his way back from Moscow, Erdogan said the Adana accord had been “an important step,” news reports said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the A Haber news channel that “indirect contacts” between Ankara and Damascus were in place but Erdogan said his government would not engage in “top-level contacts” with the Syrian government, accusing Assad of being responsible for the death “of nearly a million people.”

Besides encouraging exchanges between Turkey and Syria, Russia is eager to sponsor talks between the Syrian government and the Kurds in the hope that it would extend the Syrian government’s gains and further cement its hold on the country.

“We are in favour of a dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds,” Putin said. The Syrian pro-government paper Al-Watan reported that a Kurdish delegation arrived in Moscow a day before Erdogan. There was no confirmation from Kurdish officials. A deal between Assad’s government and the YPG could be an obstacle for Turkey’s planned buffer zone.

Turkey is also coming under pressure in the Syrian province of Idlib. Putin and Erdogan struck a deal last September that prevented a Syrian government attack on the rebel-held region amid Turkish fears that fighting could trigger a new wave of refugees into Turkey. The agreement created a security zone free of heavy weapons and monitored by Turkish troops to halt fighting.

Turkey wants the deal to stay in place, fearing that Syrian government forces are trying to undermine the agreement. Russia has urged Turkey to act more resolutely in reining in militants in Idlib who have attacked Syrian government forces and the Russian military.

Putin praised Turkey for helping stabilise Idlib but emphasised that more joint efforts were needed to combat militants. “The cessation of hostilities mustn’t hurt the fight against terrorism that should continue,” he said. Erdogan stressed that “our fight against terror organisations in Idlib will continue jointly in the same way.”

Popp said a solution to problems in Idlib and an agreement between Assad and the Kurds could lead to more extensive exchanges between Ankara and Damascus.

“In case of restoration of government control in Idlib and some negotiated solution to Kurdish autonomy on terms acceptable to Turkey the way towards a limited rapprochement would be open,” Popp wrote. “Reconciliation between Turkey and Syria would also be conducive to the Russian strategy of eliminating US influence from the northern part of the Middle East.”

During their Moscow meeting, Putin and Erdogan boasted of their efforts to produce a list of candidates for a committee that would work out Syria’s new constitution. Putin noted that its approval by the United Nations has been blocked by France, Germany and Britain, and voiced hope that a compromise will be found.