While the meeting was going to be intense not just because of the varying, though not diverging, interests of Russia, Iran and Turkey, but also because of the situation developing on the question of creating a US-Turkey jointly managed “safe zone” in Syria, the outcome of the conference has meant a different thing. Turkey was certainly freaking out because of its still un-finished agenda vis-à-vis Kurds, who, in the words of Erdogan, continue to receive support from NATO and remain a major security threat. The latest Sochi conference was thus held against the backdrop of a sustained US diplomatic push to wean Turkey away from both Sochi and Astana processes and thus cause a major dent to the conflict resolution efforts that Russia has been spearheading for the last two years or so. While it certainly a positive sign that the parties met again, and the conference was held successfully, what is even more important is that the outcome of this conference has once again meant the prospects for a US return to the Syrian end-game are next to nill.
This is not just because Syria and Russia are willing to give Turkey all it needs, but also because all of the parties, including Turkey, signalled that US withdrawal from Syria was necessary for peace to return and for Syria to become one territorial entity again. As such, the US., hoping as it was to bank on Turkey to re-insert itself in the end-game and keep Syria immersed in conflict, does no longer have this option.
The Conference has also confirmed that both Russia and Iran consider Turkey’s interest not only legitimate, but also pursuable in the light of the Adana agreement. Russian president’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview given to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily, that “according to the agreement, Turkey can carry out cross-border operations and doing so is deemed legal. Consequently, the legal ground is evident, and there is no need for a new ground.” He clarified that since the agreement is between Turkey and Syria, Russia will not have any objection to its activation in the current scenario, adding further that “Damascus at the time [of signing the agreement] said that if there is something bothering you, if you see terrorists on our soil, you can conduct a cross-border operation by entering to a certain degree. Why should we not benefit from this legal ground? We should most definitely benefit from it [to secure Turkey’s interests].”
With Turkey now actually having a legal cover to do operations inside Syrian territory, the need for allying with the US to create a “safe zone” becomes meaningless not just because it would be an illegal activity but also because it would come at a high cost of disrupting its relations with Syria, Russia and Iran as well. Turkey, therefore, has every reason to continue to look towards east to materialise its goals.
And as far as the east goes, Syrian leadership has already told the Kurdish militias to re-consider their position in the light of a US withdrawal and an up-coming Turkish operations, for the US will not be there to protect them. “We tell those groups who are betting on the Americans, that the Americans will not protect you”, Assad said in a televised speech on last Sunday, adding also that “The Americans do not hold you in their heart… They will put you in their pocket so you can be a bargaining chip.”
Assad was clearly giving a warning to Kurdish militias ahead of a Turkish military operation, which Syria, of course, wouldn’t oppose due to the Adana agreement. Accordingly, Kurdish militias have once again started looking towards the US for help and have appealed for a 1,500 strong border force to protect them from the Turkish offensive.
But it clear that the US doesn’t have many options on the ground to actually do the job. Most importantly, they are left with no strong allies in the region to help them carry out their agendas, forcing them to shift their troops from Syria to Iraq.
What the outcome of the conference has therefore meant for the US is that it will eventually have to go ahead with its military withdrawal from Syria, despite the fact that many in the US, including military officials, continue to warn against the possible consequences of such a withdrawal.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.