The Astana trio meets amid ambiguities around the US withdrawal from Syria

Published 13.02.2019 00:21

The Turkey, Russia and Iran partnership is taking coherent steps to end the Syrian crisis while the U.S. is still not even certain about whether to implement its announced decision to withdraw

When the hostilities are over, no peace or stability will descend on Syria like a gift from god. For the political resolution of the conflict, a concerted effort by the international community needs to be contributed to now. Turkey, Russia and Iran, the parties of the Astana peace settlement process, are meeting on Thursday in Sochi, Russia to consider the ongoing conflict in Syria again. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin shared with the Komersant daily on Feb. 8 that the "main issue on the meeting's agenda will be how to avoid destabilization and chaos and ensure control over the situation, if the Americans leave. Also, the meeting will focus on what is happening on the ground and how the three Astana process guarantors can contribute to building better stability, anchoring the gains of the fight against terror and preventing terror attacks in Syria.

Of course, the political process and Syria's post-war development, the importance of humanitarian assistance to Syria without political preconditions will be discussed as well. Also considered will be a highly important issue, the Syrian refugees' repatriation, which is going on and not liked by everybody."

Russia's concern about Idlib

Security matters are high on the Sochi meeting's agenda. The situation in Idlib continues to generate mutual concern of the Astana process guarantors. In Idlib, Turkey is stalled in its effort to dissolve the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) currently controlling most of the opposition stronghold, while trying to prevent a military offensive by the Syrian regime into the province.

"Russia highly appreciates Turkey's constructive position in Syria and does its best to meet Turkey's security concerns. Russia compromises with Turkey on such a sensitive matter as the [the People's Protection Units (YPG)] and expects its meeting the obligations regarding Idlib which is the zone of Turkey's responsibility. Continuous provocations toward our troops originating from Idlib are a big concern for Russia," Mikhail Emeliyanov, the first vice-chairman of the committee on legislation and state development of the Duma and head of the Russian delegation to the Black Sea Parliamentary Assembly (PABSEC), shared with Daily Sabah.

"We appreciate Turkey's refraining from extreme actions in Idlib in order not to fully fall out with the opposition groups there and not to lose the influence on them. Turkey keeps resorting to breaks and concessions but eventually they backfire on Russia."

To prevent a looming advance by the Syrian army and a humanitarian disaster into the Idlib province, Turkey and Russia stepped in and reached the Sochi agreement on Sep. 17, 2018 that envisaged a demilitarized zone of 15-20 kilometers between the warring parties and the evacuation of heavy weapons and radical groups.

Pulling out of the region

The United States' announced troop withdrawal gives additional leverage to Turkey in decision making on Syria, while leaving it with an extra burden of cleansing Syria from terrorists. Washington's announcement was followed by a proposal of a safe zone that came as Turkey was preparing for an offensive against the YPG east of the Euphrates River.

Turkey kept suggesting a safe zone between the northern Syrian towns of Jarablus and al-Rai since 2012 but got positive feedback only when the U.S. decided to leave Syria.

Turkey insists on fully cleansing Syria's northeastern regions from the YPG and creating a zone free from terrorists where Syrian refugees could safely return. It is ready to supervise the zone and may run it jointly with the U.S., but "there has been no satisfactory plan on the safe zone in northern Syria put before us yet [by the Americans]," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Feb. 5, while adding later that "Turkey's patience will run out soon if the PKK-linked YPG terrorists do not leave Syria's Manbij within the next few weeks."

Still, the U.S. proposed zone is rather a buffer between the Turkish army and the YPG and it doesn't match Turkey's understanding of a safe zone. In an apparent attempt to compromise and prevent Turkey's imminent incursion into the Manbij region, the U.S. strives to ensure a belt safeguarding the YPG from the Turkish advance.

Russia is generally positive about having a safe zone in northern Syria. Still, "no zone shall be permanent, and it has to be established in compliance with principle on Syrian territorial integrity and sovereignty," said Vershinin. "Adherence to the principle has been confirmed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as by other members of international community and this is highly important. That's why we'd rather need not to consider a security zone but to look deeper into the matters of security and its ensuring which is a different issue. How this issue is going to be resolved, either through making a safe zone or building an interaction, is a matter for further consideration."

Situation around Manbij

The safe zone issue is linked to a thorny matter of Manbij with the surrounding area occupied since 2016 by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by YPG militants. In June 2018, Turkey and the U.S. agreed on ending the YPG's presence in Manbij, but despite the initial 90-day timetable, Americans keep failing on their commitment. Turkey announced on Dec. 12 its decision to cleanse the region from terrorists but put the operation on stand-by when U.S. President Donald Trump announced that they have decided to pull U.S. troops from Syria.

Russian parliamentarian Emeliyanov believes that the imminent incursion is prone with risks for Turkey. "Even if Russia withholds its objections and gives a free hand to Turkey to cleanse the area from the YPG, the operation will hardly be a success. The U.S. will do its utmost to impede it, since having the operation happening will mean losing face. Americans won't let Turkey having a free hand in Syria and they are threatening Turkey with repressions and sanctions already, and they are serious," he said. "The Sochi summit will most probably consider Turkey's security, its further actions, engagement of the Syrian army, involvement of the YPG and the ways to neutralize the destabilizing effort of the U.S. affiliates in Syria after its troops are out. Of benefit for the Americans will be, if after their withdrawal the PKK/YPG react with new insurgencies or aggression to either the Turkish or Syrian army, or them both and the retaliation turns severe."

"In this context, a mutual understanding between Russia and Turkey, the principal actors of the peace settlement in Syria, is of paramount importance, as well as their interaction with the Assad regime for guiding it what to do and what not. Based on that it would be realistic to persuade the PKK to stop the insurgency and convince them that bloodshed never brings a desired result. Making peace with them will be a difficult process prone to outbursts of insurgency, but if the Turkish and Syrian armies cooperate, Turkish security will be ensured," Emeliyanov added.

Mending Turkey-Syria ties

Russia encourages Turkey and Syria to mend ties, believing that approximation of their positions positively contributes to a political resolution in Syria. Russia is the best equipped to help them do this thanks to their strategic partnership with Turkey and close ties with the Assad regime since the 1970s.

When meeting with President Erdoğan in Moscow on Jan. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up the 1998 Turkey-Syria Adana accords on the fight against the PKK terrorist group.

If operational again, the accords have the potential to revive Turkey-Syria interactions. In this case, Russia believes a Turkey-U.S. security zone in northeastern Syria would become useless and their cooperation would be meaningless.

"The U.S. openly threatens Turkey with negative repercussions, if the two don't come to terms on northern Syria. In this context, a solution could be an active presence there of the Syrian regime forces for ensuring security. The presence would be legitimate, and they could restrain the PKK and keep it refrained from acts of aggression toward Turkey," Emeliyanov said. "Today no one else but the Syrian regular army looks to have a potential to keep the PKK controlled and to ensure Turkey's security. If the safe zone is established and the Turkish forces control it, the territory under PKK control will remain much larger than the zone, and it won't be the final decision of the problem. The Syrian army could make a second security belt to resolve the situation for all. For this, the matter shall be agreed with the PKK, that need to admit that the U.S. sparked their reckless attempt for independence and eventually left them in the lurch. Now the YPG has been abandoned without cover and it's the Syrian army that could protect them."

So far Turkey has ruled out any direct talks with Bashar Assad and it is keeping contact with the Syrian government only through third parties – Russia and Iran. Turkey and Syria "conduct foreign policy on low levels," President Erdoğan said on Feb. 3 in an interview aired on the TRT public broadcaster. That was the first time he had ever publicly confirmed direct contacts with Damascus.

* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul

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