24.10.2019 Author: Valery Kulikov

Russia and Turkey Struck a Game-Changing Deal on Syria and Beyond


On Tuesday in Sochi, Russia, a game-changing meeting between the Russian and Turkish presidents ended after six hours of negotiations. This was the eighth face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the beginning of the year, and it’s been reported that Syria wasn’t the only topic discussed, as a number of regional issues also required the attention of Presidents Putin and Erdogan, together with the discussion of the future of strengthening bilateral ties between Turkey and Russia. This meeting was a logical continuation of  attempts to promote a political settlement in Syria, which were presented at a recent meeting in Ankara by the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The overall complexity of the ongoing Syrian settlement became even more challenging after Turkish began new military operations in northern Syria. Some political figures would even claim that the events in Syria “took an undesirable turn”, which left little to no room for optimism. On top of Syria, Russia, Turkey and the United States being concerned about the overall deterioration of security in the region, both Iran and Iraq would also express their concerns. However, the parties had conflicting opinions about how this issue should be addressed.

One must not forget that the settlement of the Syrian conflict complicated by the launch of Turkey’s most recent military operation, was closely linked with the need to find a solution to the “Kurdish problem.” According to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s goal is to achieve a situation where all armed Kurdish units within Syrian territory are integrated into the legal framework of the Syrian Arab Republic, per the Syrian constitution. This would ensure there would be no illegal armed groups operating across Syria that could represent a threat to the security of the Turkish Republic.

Earlier, American officials would claim it was impossible to push Kurdish units away from the so-called “security zone” in northern Syria. Thus, US Special Representative for Syria James Franklin Jeffrey at a hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee argued that it was unlikely that Moscow could drive the Kurds out of this area. However, Moscow’s step-by-step approach toward negotiations with the Kurds resulted in the Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) informing the Pentagon that they fulfilled all their obligations to the US and, therefore, were leaving the “security zone” stretching along the Syrian-Turkish border, on October 22. Nevertheless, Washington tried to score political points in this situation, as US Vice President Mike Pence rushed to announce that this was the victory of the United States.

In spite of numerous contradictions, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan managed to reach a mutual understanding in Sochi, thus defusing the situation both in Syria and around it. The negotiations between  Putin and Erdogan ended with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the countries, according to which Russia and Turkey support the principles of unity and integrity of Syria’s territory, while they both remain committed to the goal of fighting terrorists both inside and outside Syria.

One of the points of the memorandum states that from October 23 onward, Russian troops will deploy along the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border to facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish self-defense units to at least 30 kilometers away from the border. Kurdish units should abandon the area within 150 hours after the start of the withdrawal. After that, the Russian and Turkish military will start patrolling the territory near the border. The parties also take  responsibility for returning refugees to their homes.

Washington’s support for the Kurds has been a major spoiler of bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States throughout the Syrian campaign. US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northeast Syria served as an indication that Erdogan’s concerns were taken into consideration in the White House. This decision was taken in spite of the White House running the risk of provoking a massive outcry in the United States, primarily from the war party and the zealous critics of the current American president. Trump reacted rather timidly to the provocative demands voiced in the US and several other NATO countries about the need to “punish Ankara” for its recent actions in Syria. Some hot heads would go as far as to question Turkey’s membership status within NATO. However, these tactics allowed the White House to save face in its relations with Ankara. There is no doubt that Trump’s well-balanced approach to the situation in Syria and the contradictions with Turkey, will result in Trump improving his position in Washington.

As for Turkey, its president has once again observed the benefits of establishing strong ties with Moscow, and personally with Vladimir Putin. Without the Russian leader playing a part in regional affairs, there would have been no defusing of the dangerous situation in northern Syria or any sort of counter-balance in Turkey’s in relations with the US and the West as a whole.

The Turkish side has already voiced its satisfaction with the agreement that was signed in Sochi. In the broadest sense of the word, this agreement allowed Erdogan to escape the “Syrian trap” in which he found himself caught, due to his own actions and the steps taken by the United States. Now, perhaps, an opportunity is opening up for a dialogue between Ankara and Damascus.

Immediately after the conclusion of the meeting with Erdogan, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin contacted his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar al-Assad to personally inform him of the parameters of the agreement with Turkey. Assad supported the deal and thanked Putin for his role in crisis management amid all this. Syria’s President reaffirmed the readiness of the Syrian border guards, together with Russian military police, to enter the border area with Turkey to preserve security in this region.

The fact that this meeting of the Russian and Turkish presidents became a game-changing event was confirmed by the presence of more than two hundred journalists in Sochi, including those from France, Germany, Japan and the US. Erdogan has recently been visiting Sochi regularly, but this was the first time his trip produce such an effect on the media.

Despite the linguistic differences of the foreign media covering this meeting and its results, the overall assessment of it is very positive, since the agreements reached outline a way out of the Syrian crisis that has been raging on for many years. At the same time, there’s a clear sign of frustration in the reporting of some Western countries, opposing a significant strengthening of Russia’s position in the region.

For example, the German Handelsblatt notes that the indecision of the West and its attempts to ignore on the ground realities in Syria allowed Russia to become a key player in world events yet again. And Putin took advantage of this opportunity rather skillfully… The publication says it’s about time for the West to wake up and put an end to its own self-destructive practices. Europe and the US need to redefine their alliance, developing a joint position to its relations with Russia

Der Spiegel states that Putin and Erdogan have made all of the decisions themselves, transforming Bashar al-Assad into a clear winner of the debacle in Syria. However, the publication states, unlike Putin, Assad and Erdogan are partial winners in this situation. It’s also clear that the United States no longer plays an important role in the region, as Russia will now be responsible for preserving peace in the region.

The French L’OBS notes that the withdrawal of American troops from Syria entailed a redistribution of power in the region, the main winner of which was the Russian president. Under these conditions, tomorrow’s world will belong to Eurasia with three world capitals remaining: Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.

In its assessments, the US Senate went even further, as one of its representatives, Senator Richard Blumenthal, described the partnership between Putin and Erdogan as dangerous. Blumenthal believes that President Trump has renounced responsibility for American leadership.

Valery Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’

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