Turkey’s geopolitical manoeuvres strike a sour note in Syria

Furious with Erdogan’s tactics, Assad delivered a speech three days after the Sochi summit, lashing out against the Turkish leader, describing him as a “small US pawn.”
Sunday 24/02/2019
Bone of contention. Fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime in the countryside of the northern province of Idlib, last August.(AFP)
Bone of contention. Fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime in the countryside of the northern province of Idlib, last August.(AFP)

BEIRUT - When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Sochi, Russia, for talks with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in mid-February he knew the discussions would lead nowhere.

Erdogan is highly focused on the March 31 municipality elections, which his Justice and Development Party is leading in full-gear.

He also fears that any deal with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Russian President Vladimir Putin would put him on another collision course with US President Donald Trump ahead of Election Day. In January, Trump publicly threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy, sending shockwaves throughout Ankara.

Turkey’s 2014 elections were marred with violence and election fraud and any US meddling in this year’s polls might have negative effects on Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party.

At the Sochi summit, Erdogan floated two proposals for Syria. The first is an American one, mandating a safe zone in Syrian territory, aimed primarily at keeping Kurdish separatists from the border area.

Erdogan had wanted an area 32km deep and 460km wide but he ended up with no more than 5km, which is all the Trump administration was willing to sign off on, conditioning, however, that he uses no force to wipe out his Kurdish enemies.

Putin disliked the idea from Day One, saying he would only support it if Erdogan agreed that the safe zone would be administered by the Syrian government. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stressed that Syria was a “sovereign country” and that any safe zone “must be decided directly by Damascus.”

Putin came up with a counterproposal, reviving the Adana Agreement of 1998. That treaty, signed between Damascus and Ankara, would normalise political relations between the two countries, end the state of belligerency and restore full Syrian sovereignty over entire towns and villages occupied by the Turkish Army since mid-2016.

In return, it gives Turkey the right to cross the border into Syria (up to 10km) in pursuit of Kurdish militias. Those troops cannot stay in Syria and must coordinate their incursion with Syrian authorities.

Putin suggested amendments to the original treaty, calling deployment of Russian military police across the border area, instead of a safe zone.

Erdogan seems to prefer the Adana Agreement over the US-proposed safe zone but cannot embrace it now, not even slightly, fearing American backlash. Although it strips him of occupied land, Adana maintains his authority to use force to crush the Kurds when needed. It is also more doable and guaranteed, especially if Russian troops man the border area.

Instead of finalising the deal at Sochi, however, he delayed the process, drowning it in nitty-gritty details. He revisited Idlib, for example, hoping to divert attention of his counterparts, saying that he would not support or turn a blind eye to any upcoming Syrian offensive on the north-western city, fully controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Putin had been brought to believe that Erdogan’s priorities had shifted in Syria, from keeping Idlib (as it had been since 2015) to overrunning the Kurdish towns of Ras al-Ayn, Kobane and Tell Rifaat, which he promised to do last December after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from Syria.

When Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi last September, the Turkish president promised to cleanse Idlib from all HTS presence by no later than mid-October 2018. That deadline has been repeatedly missed. Instead of having them fight HTS, Erdogan ordered withdrawal of two of his most powerful Syrian proxies, Ahrar al-Sham and the Zinki Brigade.

They were redeployed near Kurdish territories that Erdogan hopes to overrun by next spring.

Erdogan is using Idlib to delay progress on the border area, waiting for his elections to pass. That explains why the next tripartite summit was scheduled for April, not March. He refuses to take any action on Idlib, however, and yet will not allow the Russians and Syrians to move on the city as well.

Furious with Erdogan’s tactics — and probably with implicit Russian approval — Syrian President Bashar Assad delivered a speech three days after the Sochi summit, lashing out against the Turkish leader, describing him as a “small US pawn.”

He carefully avoided any criticism of Gulf countries and extended a hand to the Kurds, sending a message to the Turkish president that if he doesn’t cooperate, the alternative for both Syria and Russia would be to put their full weight behind Kurdish militias.

Addressing the Kurds without mentioning them, Assad said: “The Americans will not protect you! You will be a bargaining chip in their pocket and they have already started bargaining.”

He called on them to return to the government fold, adding: “Only the state will protect you and only the Syrian Army will defend you if you join it and fight under its banner.”

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