03.02.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Russia Walking a Fine Line between Turkey & the US in Syria


The politics of ‘safe-zone’, a stretch of Syrian territory along Turkey-Syria border jointly managed by Turkey and the U.S., has certainly given a new twist to the Syrian end-game. Most certainly, the US’ encouragement of this ‘safe-zone’ is part of its plan to win back its largely lost position and leverage in Syria. For Turkey, this ‘safe zone’ would ensure its position vis-à-vis Kurdish militias. The diplomatic manoeuvring around ‘safe-zone’, therefore, is of crucial significance. A US-Turkish understanding over this ‘safe-zone’ would certainly weaken Syria’s control over its own territory and it would create difficulties for Russia and Iran to complete the objective of establishing Syrian sovereignty over all of Syria, restoring the pre-war Syrian territorial reality. But Russia and Iran also want to make sure that Turkey continues to side with them, as the Syrian neighbour is not only a crucial partner in Sochi and Astana peace processes, but also a vital connection in the wider Eurasian connection that Russia has built over the last few years. Therefore, a US manoeuvre to win over Turkey by wetting its appetite for ‘safe zone’—a demand that the US had previously rejected many times—presented a major diplomatic challenge for Russia, which of course, featured prominently in the last week’s meeting between Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin.

But what was even more prominent in that meeting was the way Putin’s diplomacy neutralised rather successfully the US ability to manipulate Turkey’s security concerns. This was done by not only showing sensitivity to Tukey’s concerns and interests, but also by reinforcing the importance of a US withdrawal from Syria as the key to settling all aspects of the conflict. In doing this, Putin’s intention was obviously to take Russia’s relations away from the reach of US tentacles.

To begin with, Putin first salvaged Turkey out of the criticism it had faced from Syria regarding the un-authorised presence of Turkish forces inside Syria. He did so by making a clear distinction between the US and Turkey in Syria. Although Putin underscored that any foreign presence on Syrian soil will lack “international legal grounds” if it is not on the basis of an invitation from Damascus or emanating out of a decision of the UN Security Council—and in saying so he was specifically referring to the US occupation of Syria— he was quick to give a special qualification to Turkish presence by calling it “constructive cooperation”, which nonetheless becomes necessary to end the conflict.

And, this “constructive cooperation” led Putin to lay the path for establishing “demilitarised zone in Idlib”, the MoU for which had been signed in Sochi. But the most important thing, the master-stroke of diplomacy, came when Putin referred to the still valid “1998 treaty between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Turkey”, the Andana Accord, which, as Putin explained “deals specifically with the fight against terrorism”, adding that “this is the legal framework that covers many issues relating to ensuring Turkey’s security on its southern borders. Today we have been discussing this issue thoroughly and intensively enough.”

The reference to Andana Accord was crucial is as much as its validity ensured Turkey that not only Syria and Russia, but Iran also would support Turkey’s security concerns. Let’s not forget that Iran, too, had endorsed the Accord back in 2003, which means that Iran, like Russia, continues to consider this agreement “valid”.

The Andana Accord was specifically signed over the Kurdish PKK’s activities and presence in Syria, and its essence was to eliminate Turkey’s concerns about its security. The Adana Accord states that Syria is committed to eliminate any activity on its territory that would jeopardize Turkey’s security, including “the supply of weapons, logistic material, financial support to and propaganda activities” of Kurdish groups affiliated to the PKK.

As such, by re-activating the Accord, Russia has certainly offered a path to Turkey that would not only allow it to realise its security concerns, but also keep it from cooperating with what Erdogan only recently called “coup plotters” i.e., the US.

On the other hand, Syrian officials have also confirmed that Syria “is in compliance with the Adana Interstate Agreement on Combating Terrorism in all its forms and all agreements related to it.”

But Turkey also understands that the Accord also stipulates a similar cooperation from Turkey and that the aspect of reciprocity clearly enshrined in the accord would mean that Turkey would need to stop supporting “rebel groups” operating inside Syria. This, if it happens, would mean a major development in Turkey-Syria bi-lateral relations and a potential restoration of cooperation that certainly existed before the war (Turkey and Syria had signed an updated version of the Accord only in 2010).

By re-activating prospects of better security cooperation between Turkey and Syria, Russia has certainly ensured that Turkey doesn’t simply walk into the US camp, and that it gets a viable and ready-made security arrangement with Syria whereby it can both satisfy its security needs and also stay connected to the Eurasian rather than its NATO connection.

This would, as far as the question of Syrian end-game is concerned, mean that the Astana partners continue to walk side by side on the difficult task of restoring peace in Syria, a crucial step for which would be coordinated efforts aimed at establishing another de-escalation zone in northern Syria following the US withdrawal.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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