13.02.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Where does Turkey stand in the Syrian Endgame?

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Whereas the mainstream western and Arab media have been claiming a ‘serious rift’ between Russia and Turkey over the death of Turkish soldiers in a Syrian offensive in Idlib, this is far from the case. While there is no gainsaying that Russian and Syrian interests do not always converge fully and that there are some contentious areas, this then is also quite equally true of Turkey’s relations with the US/NATO as well. Therefore, expecting Turkey to take a full wheel U-turn to the US/NATO as a result of the so-called ‘serious rift’ with Moscow/Damascus is not only an extremely unlikely event to happen but also geo-politically an unrealistic assumption; for, the major disagreement, as it stands, does not exit between Russia and Turkey per se, it exists, if at all, between an increasingly assertive Syrian army, ambitiously advancing to regain control of their country, and a Turkish a resolve to prevent the emergence of a ‘Kurdistan’ along its border with Syria.

Whereas both Syria and Turkey, as also Russia, aim to prevent the establishment of ‘Kurdistan’ along Syria-Turkey border, the disagreement remains over who will prevent this i.e., whether Turkey will do this through a direct military presence or the Syrian army through directly taking control of the territories.

It was this political disagreement that was at the heart of Putin’s visits to Damascus and Istanbul in the end of January 2020. As the reports suggest, the Russians had ‘strongly advised’ the Syrian army to halt their offensive and allow Turkey to relocate its troops. Assad, while he agreed to halt the offensive, did not want to break the momentum of battle ground victories. At the same, Moscow does not think that allowing al-Qaeda affiliate groups to continue to operate from Idlib and attack Syrian and Russian interests is going to work for them; hence, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s calculated response to the tensions arising out of the clashes between Turkey and Syria.

In particular, he stated:

“We don’t agree with this view [of Erdogan about attacking Idlib]. Russia is in full compliance with the Sochi agreements on the Idlib zone. At the same time, we regret to say that the situation is far from perfect”, adding further that “a large number of terrorists remain in the area and continue aggressive attacks on the Syrian army and Russia’s Hmeymim air base. It causes us huge concern.”

Of course, when Peskov was referring to the continuous presence of terrorists in Idlib, he was alluding to the Turkish failure of honouring its part of the Idlib-deal of separating the ‘moderate fighters’ that it supports from the al-Qaeda jihadis.

Yet, the candid disagreement and/or failure to honour the deal has not led to a total breakdown of the Sochi process itself, a process that continues to provide the main framework for joint operations inside Syria. Therefore, while the mainstream media were projecting the Turkey-Syria clash, it probably purposefully failed to notice that Russia and Turkey still conducted yet another joint patrol in the countryside of Al-Darbasiyah and Ras Al-Ain in the northeast extreme of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Let’s not forget that these joint operations come as a part of a deal between Turkey and Russia to force the YPG fighters out of the region bordering Syria and Turkey.

As such, notwithstanding the disagreement regarding who would control and manage Idlib and the rest of the northeast border region of Syria, it also remains a fact that Turkey’s most fundamental interest i.e., prevention of a ‘Kurdistan’ along its border with Syria can only be realised through an alliance with Russia and Turkey than through an alliance with the US/NATO.

A Turkish full-wheel U-turn to the US/NATO and the EU, despite the latter’s various attempts, therefore does not seem possible for obvious strategic reasons. An alliance with the US/NATO would be counter-productive in that these countries/alliances favour the establishment of ‘Kurdistan’ and continue to arm and aid Kurdish militias dedicatedly fighting for a nation-state of their own.

Therefore, if Turkey were to agree to a US plan whereby Russian and Syrian forces are forced out of (northern) Syria and the US forces were to get involved once again, it will only work to Turkish disadvantage in that it will once again trigger forces like YPG to push for a greater share of the control of some of the territories of Syria, if not work for an altogether establishment of Kurdistan.

The Kurdish factor boils down to deep enough a convergence between Russia/Syria and Turkey that can easily withstand disagreements arising out Syrian operations, the killing of Turkish forces and a wave of refugees that Turkey feels it will have to accommodate due to a Syrian offensive in the northeast of Syria. A damage control mechanism has already been set in motion to not only to control the damage and repair, but also to prevent the US from fishing in troubled waters.

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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