Time is ticking away for northern Syria

Published 28.01.2019 00:25

Negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took place under difficult conditions. The U.S. is leaving Syria, in what will create a "vacuum of power" east of the Euphrates River. Both the Free Syrian Army (FSA), under the protection of Turkey, and Russia's ally Bashar Assad intend to fill this gap.

The stiff faces of the two presidents who met the journalists after a recent meeting reflected the difficulties that Turkish and Russian cooperation faces in Syria. Meanwhile, the PKK-linked People's Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD) are negotiating with Damascus to transfer the control of the eastern Euphrates to the Syrian government, which, to put it lightly, is quite contrary to Turkish interests.

Despite these difficulties, Putin and Erdoğan managed to find certain "common points," although it should be noted that there were no real breakthroughs in the Kremlin, like the one in Sochi, for instance, on Sept. 17, 2018, when the two presidents announced the creation of a "demilitarized zone" in Idlib.

In reply to the journalists' questions, the leaders limited themselves to general phrases about "collaboration" and the "Astana process." Only after they were asked directly about Idlib and northeastern Syria, Putin and Erdoğan switched to some sort of specifications. But even here, somebody could read the "agreements" only between the lines.

An important achievement for Erdoğan was Putin's silent consent on the creation of a 30-kilometer "safe zone" along the Syrian-Turkish border.

"We have no problems with Russia in this regard," said the Turkish president.

It was evident that Putin did not wish to declare publicly his support for the safe zone. Before the meeting, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, had pointed out the need to transfer the territories left by the U.S. to the Assad regime. By criticizing the U.S. presence, Putin hinted that Ankara should resolve this issue with Damascus and mentioned a 1998 Turkish-Syrian treaty on combating terrorism.

As for Idlib, Putin acknowledges that there are "problems" there, but the Sochi agreements remain in force, even if the deadlines for the withdrawal of militants expired three months ago.

The talks between Putin and Erdoğan, although not fixed by written results, marked an important strategic goal. Despite the U.S. withdrawal, Turkey and Russia remain partners in Syria, as they continue to work on its security and restoring the unity.

Erdoğan is not sure whether U.S. President Donald Trump will keep his promise and assist in the creation of the "safe zones." For his part, Putin has his doubts about U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Moscow and Ankara have a lot of work in order to force Washington to permanently leave the Arab country.

* Political scientist, an expert on the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and the EU, Ph.D. degree at Salzburg University

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