Turkey and Russia reach balanced agreement on Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached a balanced agreement on Syria in Sochi this week. Turkey was aiming at establishing a safe zone inside Syria along its border, from the Euphrates River all the way to the Iraqi frontier. It was going to be 440 km long and extend 30 km deep into the Syrian territory. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has stated several times that this belt would be controlled exclusively by the Turkish army. Erdoğan was also insistent on the Turkish army’s control. 

Erdoğan had planned to resettle Syrian refugees in this area repatriated from Turkey. The president even used posters during his address to the UN General Assembly in New York last month to explain the details of this project. 

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special presidential envoy for anti-ISIS coalition, depicted a slightly different picture regarding this area. He said after a meeting with Erdoğan in Ankara last week that the area to be controlled by Turkey would not be 440 km, but 120 km long, which was already under the Turkish army’s control between the Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn. Putin seems to have persuaded Erdoğan to limit the area to what Jeffrey had announced.

This outcome should not be perceived as a failure of Turkish diplomacy. It has achieved the gist of what it was aiming at - keeping the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from Turkey’s borders. To achieve this goal, Turkey may have made concessions on unrealistic components of its initial aims. 

In a sense, the 10-point Memorandum of Understanding adopted by Erdoğan and Putin in Sochi on Tuesday is very much complementary to the 13-point agreement reached by the Turkish president and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara last week, though there is no reference at all to it. It is unclear whether this was part of a previous agreement between the United States and Russia.

Whether the YPG will use attrition tactics against the Turkish army cannot be foretold, but the two agreements lay the foundations of relative stability in the region. 

Another ambition of Turkey was to control the entire area up to a depth of 30 km with its own army. This is now reduced to a narrower belt of 10 km and it will be jointly patrolled with Russian soldiers. In the remaining 20 km of Syrian territory, the Russian and Syrian armies will be responsible for supervising the withdrawal of the Kurdish fighters. 

This arrangement increases the Syrian army’s role in the region. It is difficult to tell whether the United States will be satisfied with this arrangement, because it was planning to control the northeastern triangle of Syria that contains 70 percent of Syria’s water and gas resources. To dispel American oil companies’ worries, Trump has said he will keep U.S. soldiers in the region to secure the oil wells.  

The oft-repeated reference to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is reiterated in the first article of the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding.

With the adoption of this memorandum, the task of supervising the YPG fighters’ expulsion has now been transferred from the United States to Russia. Turkey managed to keep on its side both super powers and the important actors in Syria. It has achieved this result by fielding a strong military presence. If Turkey focuses on realistic aims in the remaining stages of the Syrian crisis, it may make a substantive contribution to the constitutional process.

Turkey coveted two cities that were under the YPG control - Manbij and Tel Rifaat - and kept saying their control should be transferred to the Turkish army. By approving the Sochi Memorandum, Turkey has tacitly agreed to handing control of these two cities to the Syrian army.

One of the most important impacts of the Sochi Memorandum is that it drives a wedge into NATO solidarity by pulling Turkey one step closer to Russia’s orbit. It remains to be seen how the Atlantic community will perceive this step. Even if it opposes this move, Turkey will probably remain undeterred in consolidating its relations with Russia. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.