Turkey introduces a softer Russia to the Syrian opposition
Ottawa - Throughout the last five years of conflict in Syria, Turkey has been among the most active regional powers supporting the opposition. Before joining the war effort with military force, the Turkish government consistently aided Syria’s political and armed opposition and developed bonds of trust with Syrian Arab rebels in the process.
Preparations for the next round of talks between the Syrian regime and opposition, scheduled to take place January 23rd in Astana, Kazakhstan, offer a window into the relations between the Turkish government and Syria’s various armed opposition groups.
Rebel factions decided to send a delegation to the Astana talks after reportedly spending five days in internal negotiations in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. In previous talks, such as those in Geneva and Vienna, the opposition delegation has been composed of political figures backed by and representative of the armed factio
However, at this round of talks, a military delegation is to represent the anti-government groups. Some non-Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups, such the Islamist Ahrar al- Sham, are reportedly not attending.
What also makes this round different from the others is that Turkey and Russia are the main powers sponsoring the talks.
Though they have been supporting opposing sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have been working closely in recent weeks in regards to Syria. Both countries have been involved in the high-level diplomatic effort aimed at putting an end to the Syrian conflict. The agenda of the Astana talks reportedly will not involve discussions on transition or the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but only reinforcing the ceasefire and humanitarian issues.
Since the start of the Syrian revolution, Turkey has opposed the Assad regime. Ankara on multiple occasions has called for Assad to step down. However, Kurdish forces in northern Syria are the main concern for Ankara.
The country has a long history in fighting Kurdish militias. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group it has been in conflict with since 1984 and is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the United States, the European Union and Turkey.
Though shifts have become apparent between Turkey and the Syrian opposition, FSA groups continue to view Ankara as their key ally.
Since Turkey began diplomatic talks with Moscow, the Russian military behaviour in Syria has changed, said Mohamed al-Abdullah, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed FSA-affiliate al-Hamza Division. “Turkey’s interest with Russia would result in a positive outcome for our revolution and the Free [Syrian] Army,” said Abdullah, whose group is part of the Turkish Army-led operation against Islamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria.
On December 30th, Russian jets carried out air strikes against ISIS targets near al-Bab in northern Syria, in support of Turkey’s operation, a move seen as major shift in Moscow’s position and a milestone towards strengthened Turkish- Russian cooperation. Abdullah said this would result in an improved strategy for Turkey to counter ISIS and Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria.
“[Russia and Turkish] interests share the idea of maintaining Syria’s unity,” said Abdullah.
Pro-opposition media have reported that Turkey was backing a proposal by the opposition to unify all armed groups into one national army. This suggests that a Turkish- Russian partnership on Syria is feasible and could produce tangible outcomes. In the last year, Russia has been loudly calling on the international community and powers backing the opposition to separate moderate opposition forces from hardliners. The rebel unity proposal would likely serve this aim.
“The one conflict that may occur [between Russia and Turkey] is on the fate of Bashar Assad,” said Abdullah. “Turkey views that there would be no unified Syria with Assad in power, while Russia thinks this is an early topic for discussion now, as there is no alternative in the opposition.”