Yaşar Yakış
Mar 02 2018

UN ceasefire call allows Turkey to recalibrate Syria policy

The UN Security Council last week adopted Resolution 2401, which requires that all parties cease hostilities ‘throughout Syria’.

This resolution offers Turkey an opportunity to make a major adjustment in its Syria policy.

Irrespective of whether Turkey will abide by the resolution, we have to assume that the words ‘throughout Syria’ were incorporated in the text in cognizance of the facts. This wording does not leave room for interpretation.

The co-sponsor of the draft resolution, the Swedish Permanent Representative to the UN Olof Skoog told the Security Council session that the key component of the resolution was a nationwide cessation of hostilities.

French President Emmanuel Macron telephoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to tell him the ceasefire also covered Afrin. U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, answering a question whether the resolution covers Turkey’s military operation in Afrin said: “I would encourage Turkey to go back and read the resolution”.

Briefly, Turkey may face mounting pressure from the international community to suspend the Afrin operation.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu during a recent visit to Jordan said: “There is no problem if the Syrian regime enters Afrin to clear the area from YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters, but if it enters there to protect YPG, nobody will be able to stop the Turkish army”.

Despite its negative connotation, there is a constructive ambiguity in this sentence. Nobody claims that the pro-Syrian government forces were sent to Afrin to protect YPG fighters. They are sent firstly to protect their country from a foreign invasion, but also to undo the local administration that the YPG declared as a canton.

Therefore, regardless of whether Turkey will later expand its military operation to Manbij or to the east of River Euphrates, it may abide by Resolution 2401 and leave the task of dealing with the YPG fighters in Afrin to the Syrian government. Turkey does not need to look for a justification for such a move, since it will simply be implementing the binding provisions of a UN Security Council resolution. Such a decision will solve several problems at the same time: It will be an important step in the direction of normalising Turkey’s relations with Syria and it will eliminate one of the controversial issues with the United States, Russia, Iran and many members of the international community.

There is another element in the UN resolution that facilitates such a step by Turkey: The resolution provides that the cessation of the hostilities will not apply to the military operations against Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with terrorists, as designated by the council.

Failaq ar-Rahman, the opposition faction supported by Turkey in Eastern Ghouta, and the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam cut their relations with the factions designated as terrorist and declared they will abide by UN Resolution 2401. These two factions are in favour of the Syrian army entering Eastern Ghouta. Turkey may have given its blessing to this approach of Failaq ar-Rahman. In acknowledgement of this attitude, the Syrian army refrained from bombing the districts controlled by these two factions. This move may give them in the future an opportunity to become part of the political process. It may also provide Turkey with an additional leverage in the political process.  

The resolution also has a negative indirect effect on Turkey’s observer mission in Idlib.

Since the cessation of hostilities will not apply to the fighters of the al-Nusra Front, renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Syrian army will either eliminate or force it to leave Eastern Ghouta. No state will feel secure when there are listed terrorist organisations in the suburbs of its capital. If al-Nusra is forced to evacuate Ghouta, its first possible destination will be Idlib where the Turkish army is deployed to observe the de-confliction ceasefire. This will add an additional burden to Turkish army’s mission.

It may look difficult to give up the Afrin operation after such a strong commitment, but if this opportunity is missed, an auspicious occasion like this one may not arise again in the foreseeable future.