Yaşar Yakış
Sep 20 2019

Fifth summit of Astana process on Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted his Russian and Iranian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani in Ankara this week for the fifth summit of the Astana peace process on Syria. The leaders announced after the meeting that they had agreed on a range of issues on the Syrian crisis.

As expected, the Idlib question appears to have dominated the talks. In the short press briefing before the summit, the leaders made remarks that reflected their respective priorities.

Erdoğan emphasised the importance of the security zone that Turkey aims to establish in northeast Syria. He repeated his resolve that if an agreement could not be reached between Turkey and the United State on the modalities of the security zone, Ankara was determined to go ahead with its own plan. This means Turkey will carry out a military operation east of the River Euphrates to establish a safe zone on its own terms.

Rouhani drew attention to the “illegal U.S. military presence” on Syrian soil. He did not say that Turkey’s military presence in Syria was also illegal, but the Iranian position is well known; it only considers its own presence and that of Russia as legal.

Putin emphasised that the three leaders had agreed to take additional steps to reduce tensions in Idlib and that Russia would continue to extend what he said was limited assistance to the Syrian army to eradicate terror in the province. He may have added the word “limited” to his statement for the sake of pleasing Turkey.

The most concrete progress was achieved on the constitutional process.

An agreement has finally been reached on who will make up the constitutional committee. It will be composed of 150 members to be designated by the government, the United Nations and the opposition. Turkey had misgivings on some names on the opposition list because of their connection with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation listed as such by the European Union and NATO countries. Turkey has been fighting with this organisation for more than 35 years. The backbone of the U.S.-supported armed opposition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is composed of Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have strong ties to the PKK. So, Turkey was opposed to the inclusion of the members of this organisation in the constitutional committee. This obstacle seems now to have been overcome. Putin praised Turkey’s efforts for the completion of the list.

There was a meaningful coincidence one day before the summit. The Syrian government sent a letter to the UN secretary general and the Security Council, labelling the SDF a “separatist terrorist militia”. Turkish media commented that this might be a message to the summit and to the Turkish government. Turkey regards the SDF as a U.S. proxy in Syria. Washington wants to use the SDF to put pressure on Damascus during the democratisation process and, in the long run, to carve out a Kurdish entity in northeast Syria. Turkey is strongly opposed to this U.S. plan, because it may set an example for Turkish Kurds to try to follow suit. The United States has provided tens of thousands of truckloads of weapons, equipment and ammunition to the SDF. It also provided training to SDF fighters.

While Turkey’s interests are so contradictory with those of the United States, it has overlapping interests with Syria on the Kurdish issue. Despite this, Ankara refuses to work with Damascus as it considers President Bashar Assad’s regime illegitimate. Rouhani mentioned in his address to the press after the summit that Turkey might cooperate with Syria within the framework of the Turkey-Syria Adana Agreement of 1998, which was signed to cooperate in the fight against PKK terrorism.

Turkey was also encouraged by Putin during an earlier summit to use the same agreement to cooperate with Syria to fight the common Kurdish enemy, but Turkey turned a deaf ear to the suggestion. So Rouhani repeated the suggestion once more, especially after Damascus labelled the SDF a terrorist organisation.

There is also strong pressure on the Turkish government from various quarters within Turkey to cooperate with Damascus, including from within the ruling party. The government has yet to decide whether it should follow these suggestions coming from almost all quarters.