Erdoğan signals Turkey and Russia working together on Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this week paid his first visit to Russia of 2019 and strengthened bilateral relations in meetings that focused on Syria.
For Russia the most important issue was the situation in the northern Syrian province of Idlib where the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has overrun areas controlled by the Turkish-supported opposition group, Nour al-Din Zenki Brigades. While Turkish forces had been tasked with observing ceasefire violations in the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the difficulties faced by Turkey in Idlib and its genuine efforts to overcome them.
For Turkey, the most important issue in this encounter was the creation of a safe zone to the east of the River Euphrates. Russia is aware that Turkey has to sort out this problem with the United States, because U.S. troops are present in the area backing Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
However, during the press conference after the summit, Putin made a surprise reference to an old agreement signed in 1998 in Adana between Turkey and Syria. This agreement provided for the expulsion of the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), based in Syria since 1984. Turkey warned at that time that, if Syria continued to shelter the PKK terrorists on its soil, it would move its army into Syria and eliminate them.
Upon this threat, Syria signed the Adana agreement that led to end of the PKK presence in Syria and the capture of its leader Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya.
When Putin was summarizing the negotiations in the press conference he said that the American military presence in Syria was illegal, because it was not at the invitation of the Syrian government. He said Moscow was encouraging negotiations between the Syrian government and the Kurds, adding it would be logical for the vacuum created by the U.S. pull out to be filled by the Damascus government. Moscow’s desire to hand over control of areas vacated by the United States to the Syrian government has been known for years. What is new is the reference to the Adana Agreement.
This question must have been debated in the meeting. If Turkey had energetically rejected this option, Putin would not have mentioned it in the press conference. If it was mentioned and Turkey acquiesced without any strong rejection, a new era may be dawning in Turkey-Syria relations, a long awaited dim light at the end of the tunnel for the initiation of bilateral contacts.
Another piece of information that Putin shared with the press conference was the stance of Germany, France and Britain on the constitutional process. Putin interrupted his talk to read out a text that he received from his press secretary. According to the text, these three countries have asked the UN secretary general to instruct the UN special envoy for Syria not to approve the list of participants of the constitutional committee submitted by Russia.
Apart from these details, the meeting seems to have gone well for Turkey. Nothing concrete was resolved, but the two leaders were able to consolidate their mutual trust.
Erdoğan mentioned in the press conference that Turkey was cooperating closely with the United States for the creation of a safe zone. Mentioning such controversial issues in the presence of Washington’s arch rival has to be seen as a sign of self-confidence and that the issue may have been discussed during the negotiations.
Putin also mentioned that the Astana trio meeting would be held next month in Moscow. This is a step to protect the solidarity among members of the Astana process. In the trilateral meeting Iran may cooperate with Russia against Turkey for the protection of Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, but may also cooperate with Turkey against Russia to prevent the promotion of the Kurdish cause in Syria.
With or without a U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Washington’s presence will be constrained by Turkey, Iran and Russia in the northwest of Syria and by Turkey and Iran in the northeast. This balance is likely to remain in place until the solution of the Syrian crisis.