With Operation Olive Branch launched, Turkey-Russia relations have undergone another test of resilience. International reactions remain mixed, ranging from France's appeal to the U.N. Security Council to look into the incursion, to the carefully worded British and Dutch support for the operation and the evasive remarks by the U.S. on its relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People's Protection Units (YPG).
The new Turkish military operation in Syria was provoked by a recent U.S. announcement about working with the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to set up a 30,000-men strong border security force to prevent the resurgence of Daesh and improve Turkey-Syria border security. The U.S. plan has generated harsh criticism from Russia and Iran, while the Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed the move, saying, "We condemn the U.S.'s insistence on making this erroneous step."
In this regard, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized on Jan. 15 that, "Like our Turkish and Iranian colleagues, we also expect an explanation from the U.S. on this issue. We think this decision will jeopardize Syria's territorial integrity."
Caught by an avalanche of criticism, the U.S. promptly back peddled and went into dubious explanations of its position by pointing to its support of the YPG fighting against Daesh in northwestern Syria, and not in the Afrin province. "We're in discussions with the Turks, and some of the forces on the ground as well, as to how we can stabilize this situation and meet Turkey's legitimate concerns for their security," said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in regard to the border security force on Jan. 23.
Russia considers reconciliation to be a prime mission to accomplish in Syria. To make the defeat of Daesh and other terrorist groups final and build irreversible peace in Syria, a political settlement has to be established. In pursuit of this, Turkey, Russia and Iran are holding the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi today. Based on the Astana Process accomplishments, they are launching a platform to decide on Syria's political future, its system of governance, the constitution and national elections under the U.N. supervision. In the phone conversation on Jan. 22, presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have confirmed their determination for the Syrian National Congress to open new chapters for a political solution in Syria.
Russia's reaction to the ongoing operation into the Afrin province is of particular importance for Turkey considering the countries' special relationship, Russia's military support for Turkish operations in Syria and its fiduciary relations with Bashar Assad, for whom Turkey wants no place in the future Syrian government. Russia has granted Turkey its consent to begin Operation Olive Branch by moving out its observers and the Reconciliation Center from Afrin and allowing the use of Afrin's airspace by Turkish warplanes.
In 2017, the leaders of Turkey and Russia personally met eight times and the matters of stability in the Middle East were high on their country agenda. "Our intense dialogue is evidence of productive partnership established in bilateral and regional matters," President Erdoğan said after meeting with President Putin on Dec. 11, 2017, in Ankara.
The military success accomplished in Syria in 2017 is an ultimate result of the effort of the Turkey, Russia and Iran tripartite alliance established at the very end of 2016. During the past year the alliance has launched the Astana process for peace settlement in Syria, crucially turned the course of the Syrian war in its favor and won a victory over Daesh in 2017.
Designed as a supplement to the U.N.-sponsored Geneva peace talks, the Astana Process has virtually brought them back from limbo by introducing a down-to-earth approach for resolving the Syrian crisis.
The Astana talks started from bringing together the bitter enemies on the battlefield, the Assad regime and its military opposition with real power on the ground. The effort classified as military diplomacy has slowly, but surely generated the desired result by containing the situation of confrontation in Syria, localizing the Daesh resistance and eventually making its defeat imminent. The launched process produced the tangible results and evolved into a working mechanism to hold the cease-fire, brought the warring parties to the negotiating table and eventually led to establishing in Syria the de-escalation zones, the main accomplishment of the Astana peace settlement process in 2017.
The Afrin offensive
During 2017, Daesh has more than once surrendered eagerly its positions to the SDF-controlled by the PYD/YPG while fiercely resisting other advances. As a result, some Syrian enclaves traditionally populated by the Arabs have come under their control. The Afrin province, now under the YPG-dominated SDF, was voluntarily surrendered to the YPG by the regime forces in 2012 and became home to some 8,000-10,000 terrorists. The region borders on Turkey's Hatay and Kilis provinces that generate a legitimate and deep concern for Turkey. "The whole issue is this: 55 percent of Afrin belongs to Arabs, 35 percent to Kurds who were relocated later and six to seven percent to Turkmens. The whole issue is to return Afrin to its real owners," said President Erdoğan on Jan. 21 upon the launch of Operation Olive Branch.
Washington has continuously supported the PYD/YPG as "the most effective partner against Daesh," overlooking their links to the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S., EU, and NATO. The U.S. support has become a strong factor in deterioration of the Turkey-U.S. relations, bringing them to an historic low in recent years.
On Jan. 20, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to clear out the PKK affiliates, the PYD and YPG, and Daesh from the Afrin region in order to improve Turkey's national security and prevent creating a "terror corridor" along its southern border by establishing a 30-km safe zone. The ultimate task is not to let a terrorist autonomous region to appear on the Turkish border as a result of connecting the northwestern Afrin province to the Kobani and Jazeera provinces in the northeast. The safe zone would probably be secured and administered by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to serve as a safe area for civilians who wish to come back. "We will take control of Afrin, as we did in the Syrian towns of Jarablus, al-Rai and al-Bab, and Syrians will be able to return home," President Erdoğan said on Jan. 22, pointing to the operation going on in coordination with Russia.
The next step in Syria
An instrument to safeguard the political future of Syria is expected to become the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. The event is considered a follow up on the accomplishments of the Astana settlement process, is masterminded by Russia and generates ultimate support of the leaders of Turkey and Iran. The congress is to bring together "all religious and ethnic groups" said Lavrov on Jan. 19 during his press conference in New York. "Around 1,500 representatives of the Syrian people are invited to the congress to include the sheikhs, tribe leaders, the civil society representatives – all those who continue leaving in Syria regardless of what happens and who have never left the country. We would want Stefan de Mistura to receive by its outcome the recommendations on the composition of the constitutional commission. For sure, it'll be up to the U.N. to make a decision, as the U.N. SC Resolution 2254 envisages."
A thorny issue for long remained to be the congress's attendance – with Turkey unconditionally against the PKK-affiliated PYD as a representative of the Kurds in Syria. As Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın reiterated on Jan. 6, "No terrorist group can represent the Syrian people, the PYD or the YPG cannot represent the Syrian Kurds."
Russia has shown appreciation to the Turkish position by suggesting the attendance of the Kurdish groups not affiliated with the PYD, which generated a positive Turkish reaction.
The Syrian National Dialogue Congress is due to become another mechanism – a political one this time – to move forward the Syrian peace settlement process under the guidance of a tripartite alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran. Its mission is safeguarding the peace process slowly, but surely from an unwanted interference of the third parties. To accomplish the demanding task, a strong tripartite alliance of Turkey, Russia
and Iran is indispensable.
* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul