For the good part of almost 7 years of war, Syria has seen tremendous upheavals both internally and externally. Even now when the terrorist groups have almost been defeated and the foreign-supported so-called ‘rebel’ groups are also joining the peace-process, the geo-politics around Syria continues to remain an active pathogen, causing the pendulum to move rather um-methodically. The twist we’re talking about is with regard to Turkey’s shifting position vis-à-vis the role it was supposed to play in north Syria as part of its deal with Syria, Russia and Iran. That part, as Kremlin has rather explicitly pointed out, hasn’t been played, and that this can have serious consequences in future. The Syrian government has accused Turkey of “supporting terrorists”, using the government’s term for both Turkish-backed rebels and other armed groups including former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Nusra Front, indicating the anxiety that Turkish moves are causing in the region.
Behind the game of accusations, claims and counter-claims by both Turkey and Syria about the role that Turkey can and cannot play in Syria, however, is a new game that Ankara is trying to play along with the US i.e., the creation of a “buffer zone”, which, if created, would mean that the Syrian government would lose control of these areas that otherwise are a part of the Syrian territory and belong to it. This “zone”, which will be larger in territory than Lebanon, with the US enforcing a “no-fly zone” over it, will permanently entrench both the US and Turkey in Syria, and that, too, as allies rather than as rivals. A “buffer zone” along the Turkish border would also settle many of Turkey’s concerns vis-à-vis Kurdish groups.
Ankara wants the US to vacate its occupation gradually and methodically after handing over its bases to Turkish military and removing the weaponry brought into Syria to equip Kurdish fighters. The former CIA chief and defence secretary Leon Pantetta has floated an idea that the two countries should also establish a base of action in the “safe zone” in order to ensure that “Syria goes in the right direction.” It is important to remember that Turkey has been proposing this “zone” ever since 2013, when its relations with the US were firmly stable, and those with Russia, Iran and Syria potentially antagonistic.
Indeed, talk of “safe zone” featured prominently in the talks recently held between Erdogan and Senator Lindsay Graham, who visited Turkey only a few days after Turkish leader had refused to meet Trump’s NSA, John Bolton. Graham also appeared to be amicable on the question of Kurdish future, arguing that “I have long contended that there are elements among the Syrian Kurds that represent a legitimate national security threat to Turkey. Turkey’s concern regarding YPG elements must be addressed in a real way to ensure that Turkey’s borders are secure and are protected from any threats.”
“Safe Zone” has also been reportedly consistently featuring in a parallel track of diplomacy, involving Turkish Chief of Staff General Yaşar Güler, who met US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford in Brussels on January 16. A US-Turkey Working Group meeting at deputy foreign minister level is scheduled for February 5 in Washington, which will be followed by a ministerial conference on the ISIS on February 6, which Cavusoglu is also expected to attend.
But Turkey’s diplomacy is running counter-parallel to the track that Russia and Syria seem to be laying for Syria’s re-integration. In fact, Turkey’s moves towards the US and the creation of a “safe zone” is already inviting counter-moves from Russia and Syria. On January 16, Russia’s foreign minister said that “We welcome and support the contacts that have begun between Kurdish representatives and the Syrian authorities with the aim to agree on how to restore life to normal within a common state and without outside intervention.”
Accordingly, both Russia and Syria, as also Kurds themselves, reject the notion of a “safe zone” under the control of foreign powers on Syrian territory. Unsurprisingly, both Russia and Syria want an unconditional and total withdrawal of US troops from the Syrian territories, something that Turkey, against the backdrop of a joint US-Turkey “safe zone” in Syria, doesn’t seem to want at the moment, pitting it against Russian and Syrian interests.
This explains the new nexus appearing in Syria. With Russia welcoming Kurdish integration with the Syrian state and with Russian foreign minister blaming Ankara for failing to prevent around 70 percent of Idlib from falling under control of al-Qaeda affiliates, who have now begun to threaten Russian and Syrian forces in the nearby regions, the new nexus places Ankara in the US camp, and Kurds in Russian camp.
The US thus is very actively cultivating Turkish ambitions in Syria for control over regions that were once a part of the Ottoman empire, and by doing this it hopes to break the Russian-Turkish alliance over Syria, thus leveraging its position vis-à-vis the imperative of ‘sending Assad home.’
There will, of course, be resistance from Russia, Syria and Iran against this manoeuvring. Surely, this “safe zone” cannot come into place without Turkey first launching a military operation to actually bring the territory under its control. Were Turkey to do so, it will invite a like-manner response from Russia and Syria, targeting Idlib in north Syria. Russia has been hinting about it as of recently when Putin said during his meeting with Erdogan that more action by both Ankara and Moscow was needed to “liquidate the actions of the terrorist groups” based in Idlib.
No doubt, Russia is still trying to stick to the plan that they had charted with Turkey and Iran in the Sochi deal over Idlib. But the US strategy of breaking Russia-Turkey alliance by wetting Turkey’s dream of controlling Ottoman era territories has force Ankara to play into the US game, which the US is certainly playing to win back its lost position in Syria and thus take the country to a direction it has been wanting ever since the beginning of war in Syria.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.