It has been two tumultuous weeks starting with President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, immediately followed by the launching of Operation Peace Spring, Vice President Pence’s visit to Ankara on October 17, President Erdoğan’s visit to Sochi five days later and the lifting of US sanctions against Turkey the next day.
The first visit resulted in a Turkish-US joint statement on northeast Syria and the second in a “memorandum of understanding” as President Putin called it.
Now, pundits are analyzing what was said in these two documents and predicting what the future may portend. Lots of question are being asked. Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Is there a victory? If so, whose victory is it? Where all of this might take Syria?
That questions are being asked and speculation being made is totally understandable since the Syrian conflict has been on world’s agenda for the last nine years. Moreover, contrary to what many still call the “Syrian civil war” the conflict has been anything but internal strife.
In order to properly assess what has transpired in the last two weeks, we Turks need to put everything in historical perspective.
Today, the Syrian conflict is in its ninth year and much has changed after the Russian intervention in 2015. Gone are the days of the Friends of Syria Group meetings and international coalitions targeting regime change. This group was formed after Russia and China, in the light of the Libya experience, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution intended to pave the way for another Western intervention. The group held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012. On April 1st, 2012, it met for the second time in Istanbul.
Later that month, then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu delivered a major foreign policy speech in parliament. He said:
“The Friends of the Syrian Group represents the conscience of the international community and it was formed as a result of our determined efforts… We organized the second meeting in Istanbul with the participation of 83 countries and international organizations. It’s clear that these 83 nations did not come here to say ‘let’s keep the Assad regime in place’… As Turkey, we shall continue to direct and lead the massive wave of change in the Middle East. Among the peoples of the region Turkey is seen not only as a friend and a brother but also as the leader of a new and powerful vision to shape the future, create a new regional order… Lastly, I wish to stress the following: A new Middle East is being born. We shall continue to be the owner, the leader and the steward of this new Middle East”.
The contrast between the foregoing and today’s realities unmistakably show that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) foray into the Syrian conflict was a strategic blunder. It is worth remembering that only six months before that meeting, the Turkish parliament had ratified an anti-terrorism agreement with Syria in an act of mutual trust.
But “that was then, this is now” and one must look forward.
The two documents agreed upon during Vice President Pence’s visit to Ankara and President Erdoğan’s visit to Sochi leave many military/technical questions regarding the implementation of the “safe zone” and the arrangements between Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces in the area but they also open a window of opportunity to bring the Syrian war to an end, hopefully through diplomacy.
At his joint press conference with President Erdoğan in Sochi, President Putin said:
“Syria must be liberated from illegal foreign military presence. We believe that the only way to achieve strong and long-lasting stability in Syria is to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. This is our principled position, and we have discussed it with the President of Turkey.
“It is important that our Turkish partners share this approach. The Turks and the Syrians will have to protect peace on the border together, which would be impossible without mutually respectful cooperation between the two countries.
“In addition to this, a broad dialogue between the Syrian government and the Kurds living in northeastern Syria must be launched. It is clear that all the rights and interests of the Kurds as an integral part of the multi-ethnic Syrian nation can only be fully considered and fulfilled via such an inclusive dialogue…”
None of the foregoing is news. All of this has been Russia’s consistent policy in Syria.
Immediately after the Sochi meeting President Putin called President Assad to inform him of what was agreed. The latter thanked him and voiced his complete support for the results that have been achieved and stated that Syrian border guards are ready to deploy to the Syrian-Turkish border together with Russian military police units.
In a nutshell, Moscow is going to orchestrate developments in Syria.
Criticism directed Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria in expressions such as “US is out, Russia is in” conveniently ignore Syria’s decades long cooperation with Moscow and to a large extent reflect Washington’s ongoing impeachment controversy. Those critics need to admit that Moscow is their strongest ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
The Sochi memorandum shows that Ankara no longer sees President Assad as public enemy number one but someone with whom it has no other choice but to cooperate. Thus, we are back where we were eight years ago with mutual affection missing. In other words, Turkey’s Syria policy is about to come full circle in recognition of realities on the ground.
The understandings reached in Ankara and Sochi would hopefully prevent further loss of life and displacement of people which is of fundamental importance for Syria’s political transition and lasting peace in the area. Turkish government should keep stressing that its incursion was not an assault against the Kurds as many in the Western media presented it.
Turkey’s incursion in Syria and Western reaction to the operation have dealt a major blow to Turkey’s relations with the West and to whatever mutual confidence was left between the two. Whether the damage done can be undone remains a big question.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.