Yaşar Yakış
Nov 23 2017

Turkey to withdraw from Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a trilateral meeting with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hassan Rohani on Nov. 22.

The meeting was preceded, on Nov. 20, by another summit with Syrian President Bashar Assad and two high-level meetings: one, on Nov. 19, in Antalya, among foreign ministers and the other in Sochi the day before the trilateral summit among the chiefs of staff of the three countries. Putin also made telephone calls to U.S. President Trump, the Saudi and Jordanian Kings, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

These meetings and contacts are within the framework of the preparation for the UN-sponsored Syria meeting to be held on Nov. 28 in Geneva and Russia is trying to involve as many major players as possible in the Syrian democratisation process.

The statements by the three leaders at the end of the summit took care to promote the positive sides of the work done. They were careful not to overstep limits that might antagonise the other participants. However, the words they chose barely dissimulated the divergences:

Putin emphasised the importance of the democratic process and said: “The participation of ethnic and confessional groups will allow debate of the common problems of Syria”, which includes the participation of the biggest Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey is strongly opposed to the participation of this party in the process.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani emphasised the importance of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria. This may be understood as a hint to Turkey’s military presence in Syria, there without being invited by the government. He also said “all active stakeholders should be allowed to participate in the Syrian People’s Congress” that Putin is planning to hold in Sochi. He may be alluding by this to the PYD’s participation, a sensitive issue for Turkey. Iran benefits from the PYD’s cooperation in its supply of weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Therefore, its interests may not be convergent with Turkey’s.

Erdoğan praised the work to be achieved by the Syrian People’s Congress, but added: “Nobody should expect Turkey to work under the same roof with terrorist organisations”. This sentence is meant to put on the record Turkey’s objection to PYD’s participation. Erdogan also underlined his support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. This emphasis could be interpreted as a commitment by Turkey to withdraw from Syria as soon as the country is stabilised.

Before the trilateral summit, Putin, addressing Assad, said: “I think now the main thing is to move to the political process, and I am pleased to see your readiness to work with everyone willing to establish peace and find solutions”. It remains to be seen whether Assad’s readiness to work with “everyone” also covers Turkey. 

Turkey, Russia and Iran are genuinely cooperating and the most concrete peace efforts are the ones being conducted by these three countries. They are not always on the same page, but none of the actors in the Middle East has been always on the same page with another.

Turkey and Iran have similar interests on the Kurdish question, but their position is not identical. Russia is in favour of granting more rights to the Syrian Kurds. Turkey and Iran are keeping their distance from this idea. Russia is eager to make the Syrian People’s Congress as inclusive as possible while Turkey is opposed to PYD’s participation in it. Russia continues to support the Kurdish cause and has allowed the PYD to open a liaison office in Moscow while Turkey considers it a terrorist organisation.

Turkey dropped its priority overthrowing the Assad regime, but it is still far from Iran’s policy of keeping Assad in power at all costs. There is a competition for influence between Russia and Iran in Syria. Russia is strong in the air force and navy. Iran is strong in wide swathes of territories and more integrated with the Syrian civilian people.

These differences do not prevent the three countries from making the most of their overlapping interests.