Turkish-US deal gives boost to Erdogan as he prepares for meeting with Putin

For the Trump administration, the agreement with Turkey provided a way to counter domestic criticism at home of the US approach in Syria.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Fragile deal. US Vice-President Mike Pence (R) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, October 17. (AP)
Fragile deal. US Vice-President Mike Pence (R) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, October 17. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey and the United States have agreed on a 5-day pause in the fighting and the establishment of a Turkish-controlled “security zone” in northern Syria that could provide Ankara with leverage in discussions with Russia, analysts said.

The truce was announced October 17 by US Vice-President Mike Pence after five hours of talks in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was swiftly praised by US President Donald Trump, who said it would save “millions of lives.”

If implemented, the agreement would achieve the main objectives Turkey announced when it began the assault October 9: control of a “security zone” in Syria more than 30km deep and ranging from the Euphrates in the west to the Iraqi border in the east, with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a close US ally in the fight against the Islamic State, obliged to pull out. Turkey regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, the SDF’s backbone, as a terrorist group.

“The safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces,” said a joint US-Turkish statement released after the talks. Pro-government media in Turkey lauded the agreement as a diplomatic victory for their country. “The United States has accepted our conditions,” said the online edition of the Yeni Safak newspaper.

On the ground, Russian and Syrian troops recently moved into positions previously held by US troops and the YPG, while Turkey and its allies of the Syrian National Army, a rebel alliance, pushed into other parts of northern Syria. In Manbij, Russian military police patrolled an area between Syrian and Turkish troops to prevent clashes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Erdogan for talks September 22 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think-tank, said by e-mail that the agreement with Pence “gives Erdogan a lot more ammunition in his looming diplomatic battle with Putin.”

“Erdogan and the Turkish leadership will want to secure as much territory as possible before that meeting, in order to have a stronger bargaining position with the Russians concerning how much Syrian territory in that region will remain under Turkish authority,” Heras argued.

Putin’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Turkey should limit its incursion to a depth of 5-10km. This would be far less than the 30km sought by Ankara.

“Erdogan needs more leverage to apply on Putin in that negotiation because he wants to fulfil his vision of a 32km zone from the Euphrates to the Tigris in north-eastern Syria, which the Russians and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad will try to deny him,” Heras said.

For the Trump administration, the agreement with Turkey provided a way to counter domestic criticism at home of the US approach in Syria.

Before Pence arrived in Ankara, a letter from Trump dated October 9 asking Erdogan to negotiate a “deal” with the YPG became public. Written in a highly undiplomatic style that bordered on the bizarre, Trump told Erdogan to end the Syria operation or risk devastating US sanctions.

“You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will,” Trump wrote.

“History will look upon you favourably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Trump continued. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.”

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” he finished, adding: “I will call you later.”

Turkish media, citing high-ranking government officials in Ankara, said Erdogan threw the letter “in the trash.” The officials were quoting as saying Turkey’s response to the letter was the start of the Syrian intervention.

Trump’s unorthodox manoeuvring, starting with a telephone conversation October 6 with Erdogan, during which the US president gave Turkey the green light to move into Syria by announcing the withdrawal of US troops, has profoundly shaken up the military and political landscape in Syria.

“This is definitely a turning point,” said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group. Before the chain reaction set off by Trump in his telephone call with Erdogan, north-eastern Syria had been under firm control of the United States and the YPG. That previous situation appeared “almost idyllic” when compared with the conditions in the area now, Wimmen said by telephone.

Eventually parts of eastern Syria “will be divided between Turkey and the regime,” Wimmen said. “I expect Turkey to hold on to this 30km security zone from the border to the M4 highway.”

Some elements of the puzzle, such as the next moves of the Syrian government, were less clear cut.

“We have yet to see a substantial deployment of Syrian troops over the Euphrates” into eastern Syria, Wimmen said. He said Washington was likely to try to prevent a takeover of oil fields in eastern Syria by the regime despite the decision to withdraw US troops from the region.

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