Agreement on Ankara-Washington common action in Syria

The week began with tensions in Turkey relations with the United States, and to a lesser degree with Russia. 

The first signs came immediately after the 13th round of the Astana peace talks on Syria between Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakhstan capital last weekend. Two Russian officials pressed Turkey to do more to rein in jihadist forces in the northern Syrian province of Idlib where some Turkish troops are stationed as part of an observer mission. 

One of them, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Syria Special Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, without directly accusing Turkey, said the present situation in Idlib was unsustainable. He said that almost 90 percent of Idlib was under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that rebranded itself from the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, in 2017.

“We cannot allow a terrorist organisation to turn Idlib to a calm place where it holds 3 million people hostage,” he said. 

Another Russian official, Major General Alexei Bakin, the head of the Russian centre for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria, was more explicit. “We expect the Turkish side to fully implement within 24 hours the Sochi agreement, which provides for the withdrawal of militants and weapons from the demilitarised zone and the cessation of attacks” he said. 

Then Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian Permanent Representative at the United Nations and head of the Syrian delegation at the Astana talks, joined in the chorus. “There is terrorism in Idlib, which is recognised by everyone, even the Turkish delegation, because that delegation admits that 85% of terrorists in Idlib are from Jabhat al-Nusra, and everyone knows that the Turkish regime supports this terror organisation and other groups affiliated to it in Idlib.”

These were the Russian and Syrian attitudes towards Turkey, but meanwhile Ankara was also engaged in another dispute, this time with the United States over setting up a safe zone in northeast Syria. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying: “If efforts to find common ground with the U.S. prove to be unsuccessful, Ankara would have to create a safe zone in Syria on its own.”

Turkey had to battle in several fronts at the same time. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the stakes and said: “We cannot keep silent while they harass us with their shelling. We remain patient up to a certain point. There is a limit to patience.”

Erdoğan may have made this statement to press the visiting U.S. delegation to come up with a proposal acceptable to Turkey, but the United States did not step back. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper responded by saying any unilateral Turkish operation into northern Syria would be unacceptable. This was one of the harshest verbal confrontations so far between the two NATO allies. One detail is worth noting in Esper’s statement; he ruled out unilateral action, but did not rule out U.S.-Turkish joint action.  And such a joint plan of action has now materialised.

Both Erdoğan’s raising the stakes and Esper’s resolve paid off and the two NATO allies were able to find common ground on setting up some sort of safe zone along Turkey’s border with Syria the east of the River Euphrates. More bargaining may also have taken place behind the closed doors. What is sure, as of now, is that there will not be a unilateral Turkish military action into Syrian territory. The two sides on Wednesday agreed to establish a joint operation centre in Turkey to coordinate and manage a planned safe zone in Syria’s northeast. 

So it will not be a safe zone to be exclusively controlled by the Turkish army, neither will it be a zone to protect the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Turkish Army. The declared aim has now shifted to create a “peace corridor” that would help displaced Syrians to return home. If implemented properly, this is the most realistic solution. It appears that wisdom has eventually prevailed.

This important move is also likely to have implications on the Idlib front, because in addition to the United States, Russia was also opposed to a Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates, but Turkey’s sharp turn towards cooperation with Washington may cause some resentment in Moscow.