Russia-Turkey-Iran plan for Syria shuns Kurds, US

Russia and Iran will either turn a blind eye to a forthcoming Turkish operation or actually nudge it.
Saturday 28/09/2019
A US soldier watches as Syrian Democratic Forces remove military fortifications during the implementation of the security mechanism along the Turkey-Syria border in north-eastern Syria, August 22. (AP)
A mission in jeopardy. A US soldier watches as Syrian Democratic Forces remove military fortifications during the implementation of the security mechanism along the Turkey-Syria border in north-eastern Syria, August 22. (AP)

BEIRUT - The breakthrough in the Syrian Constitutional Committee overshadowed other topics considered at the latest summit among the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Ankara.

In addition to agreeing on the constitutional procedure, the three leaders postponed a final military operation in Idlib, giving Turkey another chance at “cleansing” the Syrian province from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The Syrian and Russian armies would observe the ceasefire in Idlib, minimising refugee flow into Turkey. They still aim at retaking the main M4 and M5 highways along with entire chunks of the Idlib countryside by the end of the year, however, after stopping short of seeking to retake Idlib city — for now. The summit agreed to make sure that the 12 Turkish observation points scattered across the Idlib province are not targeted.

The Russian-Turkish deal on Idlib is not new; it was mandated by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting a year ago.

Erdogan was supposed to finish the job of “cleansing” Idlib by mid-October 2018. He missed the deadline and all its extensions, shifting his focus to three Kurdish enclaves — Kobane, Ras al-Ayn and Tell Rifaat — that were more of a security priority for Turkey.

Erdogan has been planning an operation against all three since last December but that, too, was also repeatedly delayed because of conflicting messages that Erdogan was getting from the Trump administration — whether it wanted to stay in Syria or leave — and by Turkish elections last March.

Erdogan waited for a green light from the Americans to march on Kurdish separatists, but it never came, forcing him to turn to Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani during the Ankara meeting.

In the summer, the Trump administration made it clear it would not tolerate any Turkish operation against the Syrian Kurds, seeing them as vital allies in the war on terror.

Erdogan was also informed that he would get only a fraction of the safe zone that he had wanted along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Turkish president had envisioned a buffer zone no less than 460km wide and 32km deep, one that was Kurd-free, where he could relocate millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The Americans signed off on a safe zone that was 80km wide and 14km deep, with no authority to go after the Kurds of Syria. Although agreeing to joint patrols by the Turkish and US armies, they made it clear that their mission was to monitor a potential Islamic State comeback, rather than hunt down Kurdish militias.

At the Ankara summit September 16, Erdogan voiced displeasure with what the Americans were suggesting, seeing whether Putin and Rohani could make him a better offer.

The London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Erdogan gave them until early October, threatening to act unilaterally on the Kurds if they failed to help him.

For very different reasons, all three presidents were furious with the Americans and determined to foil their future projects in Syria — common ground that will undoubtedly reflect on Kurdish ambitions in a very negative manner. Success for Ankara, after all, meant continuation of the Astana process, a three-way one from which the Americans are absent. It was the brainchild of the Russian president.

Russia and Iran will either turn a blind eye to a forthcoming Turkish operation or actually nudge it, hoping to embarrass and incapacitate the 200 US troops that Trump plans to maintain in the Kurdish enclave. Alternatively, they will collectively revisit the Adana Agreement of 1998, which Putin had raised with Erdogan last February.

Mention of the Adana Agreement resurfaced at Ankara, this time with extra lobbying from Rohani. That agreement would give Erdogan a safe zone in Syria without calling it a safe zone, making it mandatory for the Syrian and Russian armies to cleanse the borders from any Kurdish threat.

Committees will have to be set up, along with monitoring mechanisms, leading to eventual normalisation between Turkey and Syria. The 1998 agreement states that the Turkish Army can advance as far as 5km into Syrian territory to chase Kurdish separatists, if the Syrians fail to hunt them down, after coordinating with Damascus.

That 5km zone could be expanded through amendments to the original agreement, reaching up to 14-15km, which is equal to what the Americans offered. The only difference would be that, through the Americans, Erdogan could not go after the Kurds but, via the Russians, Iranians and Syrians, he could.

Putin is also suggesting deployment of Russian troops along the Syrian-Turkish border to serve as a double buffer for Erdogan. That, too, would require amendments to the 1998 agreement.

The Syrians wouldn’t mind it, of course, nor would the Iranians, Russians or Turks. This would effectively repeat the 2018 deal that Putin offered the Israelis on southern Syria.

When government troops returned to the area, Israel voiced concern about the full deployment of Syrian troops, saying that would put Hezbollah on its borders with Syria.

To address that concern, Putin deployed Russian troops to the entire area, which, topped with the return of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, made extra sure Israel’s worries were properly addressed. It can easily be redone on the Syrian-Turkish border today, this time with the full backing of Iran.

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