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Turkey’s unknown variables in the Syrian context

by Alberto Gasparetto

Publication date: 25 February 2019

The Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit on Syria – held in the Russian city of Sochi, near the Black Sea, on 14th February 2019 – brought to the surface a significant commonality of interests between the three players. In a joint statement released after the summit in which reference was made to the values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter, Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed their willingness to cooperate to preserve the unity of Syria, to safeguard its independence and territorial integrity, and to fight any separatist scheme aimed at the disintegration of the country.

The three leaders also urged the UN and its agencies to commit themselves to fully assisting refugees and internally displaced people, to strengthening humanitarian facilities (such as schools and hospitals), and to providing food and water supplies.

Finally, the leaders stated that, in line with the Un Security Council Resolution n. 2254/2015, the solution to the Syrian crisis shall only be political, and not of military nature. Therefore, they called for the swift establishment of a constitutional committee, and committed themselves to finding an agreement regarding the composition of such a body and the rules governing its functioning.

Although the three above-mentioned players reaffirmed their determination to strengthen their trilateral coordination, in line with what has been done since their first summit held in Astana (Kazakhstan) in 2017, Turkey still has some concerns regarding the definition of a security zone on the Turkish-Syrian border – an issue that Ankara has been insisting on for months, together with the US – and regarding Assad remaining in power.

Moreover, Turkey asked the United States for some reassurance with respect to the withdrawal of US troops from the north-eastern Syria, a move that the

three above-mentioned powers see as a positive factor for the stability of the country. Turkey hopes that the withdrawal will be well-planned and entail joint coordination, in order to prevent the ensuing vacuum from being filled by forces that Ankara sees as hostile. Any reference to Kurdish militias is quite obvious.

Finally, Erdoğan stated that Turkey is no longer willing to handle the thorny issue of the Syrian refugees alone – a message clearly addressed to Brussels.

It is mainly with respect to such issues that Turkey will play its own game in Syria in the coming weeks and months. The problem is not so much the veritable galaxy of jihadi armed groups that will survive the defeat of the Islamic caliphate and its rival groups, since, in spite of the concern sparked by the fierce resistance of the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, a de-escalation zone controlled by the three above-mentioned powers was established in 2018, while the group derived from the break-up of al-Nusra has almost been defeated. All main players, including the United States, agree that any remaining pockets of jihadists in the country must be eliminated, even though this results in placing on the EU the burden of dealing with the problem of the return of foreign fighters and other warriors who intend to regroup in the context of European societies.

In Syria, it is Russia that mediates between conflicting interests and holds the balance not only between Turkey and the Assad regime, but also between Iran and Israel. By playing the role of the great mediator, Putin is endeavouring to offer Erdoğan guarantees regarding the possibility of sitting at the negotiating table with Damascus, thereby envisaging a military cooperation within the framework of the 1998 Adana Agreement (which stipulated that the Syrian regime protect Turkey from the attacks of the PKK).

However, Ankara has voiced serious doubts as to the suggestion of negotiating with Damascus before any condition and any timetable of the US troops withdrawal is defined (the White House has announced that 200 soldiers will remain). What concerns Turkey the most is the status that the new Syrian state formation will grant to the Kurdish Rojava, whose existence Ankara will be forced to accept. However, in case Assad and Erdoğan reached an understanding, Ankara is likely to demand not just that a buffer zone on the Syrian border (possibly patrolled by UN troops) be established, but also that Damascus actually and tangibly support the neutralization of the threat posed by YPG militias, in exchange for Turkey’s consent to Assad remaining in power. However, it should be noted that also the Kurdish forces (the PYD party, to which YPG militias are linked) will demand similar guarantees against any possible military attacks by Ankara.

The strategic relationship with the United States will remain crucial, although it has become increasingly strained under the Trump presidency. No agreement with Washington on the definition of a safe-zone along the Syrian border has been reached yet, while the American president has threatened Turkey with “economic devastation” if Ankara carries out military attacks against YPG militias. This may seem rhetoric, but only up to a point, especially considering both the precedent of the sanctions that caused a sudden collapse of the Turkish lira last summer and the US proclivity to imposing sanctions on any countries that trade with Russia and Iran – not to mention the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system by Turkey.

If Ankara is unable to reach a win-win agreement on military issues with Washington and an agreement with Brussels on refugees and on political issues connected with internal developments, it is expected that Turkey will continue to grow closer to Moscow and Teheran and to deepen its relations with them, going beyond the economic, energy, and trade sectors.

In addition to the above-stated considerations, it should be remembered that, despite the long-standing differences, Turkey remains an ally, a NATO member and an essential partner of the EU, whereas Turkey’s alignment with Russia and Iran in Syria is purely tactical and is presumably going to last as long as Ankara’s strategic and security interests are safeguarded. Once that condition is no longer met, Ankara will soon be turning again to Washington and Bruxelles, and vice-versa.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alberto Gasparetto

Ph.D., lecturer in Political Science at the Department of Political, Legal and International Studies of the University of Padua. He is the author of the monograph “Erdogan’s Turkey and the challenges of the Middle East. Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria “(Carocci, 2017).

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