Russia revives old agreement to end Syria-Turkey dilemma

Syrians would have to guarantee that they keep their borders and towns free of Kurdish military presence.
Sunday 03/02/2019
Treading a fine line. A Russian military vehicle follows a local vehicle in the area of Arimah, just west of Manbij, the northern city near the Turkish border.  (AFP)
Treading a fine line. A Russian military vehicle follows a local vehicle in the area of Arimah, just west of Manbij, the northern city near the Turkish border. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin recently brushed the dust off an old Syrian-Turkish treaty, known as the Adana agreement, taking it out of the Syrian archives where it had been stored — barely remembered and not enforced — since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

That agreement averted a Syrian-Turkish confrontation in 1998 and Putin apparently thinks that, if revisited, it can avoid war in 2019.

The Adana agreement was signed after a massive Turkish mobilisation on the border with Syria. Ankara was threatening to attack if Syrian President Hafez Assad continued to support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered by Ankara a terrorist organisation.

Putin had just been appointed director of the Federal Security Service, the successor of the KGB. The Adana agreement certainly passed through his paperwork and seems to have left a lasting impression.

The deal was brokered by Iran and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and it called for the dismantling PKK training camps in Syria and Lebanon (then controlled directly by the Syrian Army) and the expulsion of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from Damascus.

It prevented Kurdish militants from travelling through or setting up bases in Syria and created permanent communication between Damascus and Ankara, establishing telephone connection between the two countries and joint military committees to monitor the borders and report on progress or violations.

The agreement gave the Turks the right to enter Syrian territory as far as 5km in pursuit of Kurdish militants but said nothing about establishing a permanent Turkish presence on Syrian soil. That intervention was only justified when coordinated with the Syrian government.

Adana also recognised Syrian sovereignty over border towns and villages presently in the hands of Turkish proxies, with no mention of a safe zone, making it obligatory for the Syrians to clear their territory from Kurdish militants and for the Turks to act only if Syrians failed to do so.

The agreement was renewed automatically through the years but became obsolete with the collapse of bilateral relations in 2011. Neither side officially withdrew from it, however, making it legally possible to revisit today.

Putin said the Adana agreement would give the two countries a legal pretext to talk, which would mean de facto Turkish recognition of the Syrian government.

Erdogan has welcomed the move and so did the Syrian Foreign Ministry, which issued a statement saying that it was committed to the Adana agreement — if the border situation returned to its pre-2011 status. In other words, if the Turks withdrew from all cities and towns they occupied in 2016.

The ball is now in the court of Syria and the Russians. Gone is all mention of the safe zone that Erdogan wanted at a width of 460km and depth of 30km within Syrian territory.

Turkey will be tapping into another pact, the Joint Cooperation against Terror and Terror Organisations Agreement signed during the Syrian-Turkish honeymoon in 2010. That treaty stresses that Kurdish militants can’t use Syrian territory and bans them from carrying arms or setting up training camps in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said current Kurdish militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units, are extensions of the PKK. For relations to normalise, Syria would have to eradicate them.

If it does, Putin would have to withdraw from all occupied towns and cities. Erdogan seems to have realised that he bit off more than he could chew in Syria and is accepting to mend relations with Damascus if his security concerns are respected and addressed.

In 1998, Adana called for confidence-building measures, a text that can be revisited today to re-establish diplomatic ties and joint committees on counter terrorism. It would require a hotline between Damascus and Ankara, putting an end to Syrian-Kurdish negotiations that started in mid-December after US President Donald Trump said he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria, stationed to protect Kurdish militias east of the Euphrates River.

Erdogan’s goal is to clear the border area from any Kurdish presence and change the demographics of Kurdish territory, injecting them with Arab Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011.

Putin said the agreement adequately addresses Turkish concerns, reduces Kurdish threats and preserves sovereignty of the Syrian state, giving Damascus and Ankara reason to re-engage, politically and militarily, making them partners in the war on terror, rather than sworn enemies.

The agreement would serve as an alternative to the safe zone that Erdogan had wanted to carve out of Syria, achieving its desired results without giving the Turks legal ground to stay in Syria.

Erdogan originally wanted to keep his military in the occupied towns of Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab and for his fiefdom to include Ras al-Ayn, Kobane, al-Malikiyah, Tal Nimer, Darbasiyah, Amuda, Wardieh, Tal Hamis, Qahtaniyah, Yaaroubia and Tell Rifaat.

In exchange, he made it clear, through the Russians, that he was willing to surrender Idlib, Maaret al-Nu’man, Khan Sheikhoun and Jisr al-Shughour.

If the Adana agreement is revisited and reimplemented, however, none of that can happen and Erdogan would be in no position to keep any Syrian territory. Those cities would return to Syrian government control but Erdogan’s forces would be allowed to enter them, if need may arise, to fight Kurdish presence.

In return, the Syrians would have to guarantee that they keep their borders and towns free of Kurdish military presence.