Syrian Conflict: Moment of Truth for Turkey

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It has been two tumultuous weeks which started with President Trump’s tweet announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

On December 20, responding to a question on the US pullout and ISIS by the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, President Putin said: “There is a risk of these and similar groups migrating to neighbouring regions and Afghanistan, to other countries, to their home countries, and they are partly returning. It is a great danger for all of us, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Asian countries, including Central Asia. We know that we understand the risk fully.”

He also said “… let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your troops, is illegitimate as it was not approved by a UN Security Council resolution. The military contingent can only be there under a resolution of the UN Security Council or at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian Government. Russian troops were invited by the Syrian Government. The United States did not get either of these so if they decide to withdraw their troops, it is the right decision.” 

In a phone call with his American counterpart on December 23, President Erdogan expressed his pleasure over the pullout.

The next day President Trump tweeted, “Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. See? … Thanks to Saudi A!”

During a surprise visit to US forces on December 26, President Trump said he had no plans to pull US forces out of Iraq.

On December 27, UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the resumption of diplomatic service at their embassy in Damascus. In a statement, the Ministry said that “… the move underscores UAE’s keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their normal course, thus enhancing and implementing the Arab role in supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.” It added this move “will also prevent the dangers of regional interference in Syrian affairs.”

Bahrain immediately followed suit. Saudi Arabia will probably take more time to underscore its keenness to resume diplomatic relations with brotherly Syria.

On December 28, Syrian army announced that government troops had entered Manbij. President Erdogan said that facts on the ground remained uncertain and called Syrian army’s entry into Manbij a “psychological move”. Reuters reported that Turkey-backed Syrian rebels stationed in the nearby territory said they had begun moving together with Turkish forces toward the town.

Senator Lindsey Graham suggested last Sunday, following a White House luncheon, that President Donald has agreed to reevaluate his plans to immediately withdraw all US troops. The next day the President tweeted “we’re slowly sending our troops back home …”

Finally, President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton will travel to Israel and Turkey in early January.

One may draw the following conclusions from the above:

  • The general perception is that President Assad has won the war.
  • US pullout from Syria, when and how it is going to be done remains a puzzle.
  • While many in Washington keep complaining “but we are not going to be there”, a former US ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, has argued that President’s decision was essentially correct. (*)
  • President Trump looks determined to stay in Iraq. However, time limits will gradually impose themselves and his Iran policy may lead to complications in relations with Baghdad.
  • Russia’s position has always been that any military deployment by external powers in Syria requires either a UN Security Council resolution or an invitation by Damascus. As Russia sees it, Turkish military presence in Idlib which has been agreed within the Astana process and tacitly approved by the Assad regime is a special case.
  • Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement on the results of the Russian-Turkish talks held in Moscow last Saturday. His reference to “unconditional respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” with the addition of the word “unconditional” was a message to all including Turkey. (**)
  • Russia’s priorities are dealing a final blow to ISIS and proceeding with Syria’s political transition.
  • It is obvious that to deal ISIS a lasting blow in Syria and beyond Washington and Moscow must compartmentalize their differences and cooperate in Syria.
  • The YPG and the PKK are not on Moscow’s list of terrorist organizations. Russia will encourage the YPG to come to an agreement with Damascus. The phrase “clearing Syria of all terrorist organizations” constantly used in the Astana format statements helps Moscow keep Turkey on board. Iran prefers to have Ankara talk the talk but not walk the walk.
  • The Idlib de-escalation zone with thousands of ISIS terrorists remains a huge challenge.
  • Gulf states, once Turkey’s faraway allies in the regime change project in Syria, have conceded defeat. They are now in a race to mend fences with Damascus. In continuing to settle scores with Ankara after the Khashoggi murder, they would highlight Arab solidarity.
  • Prince Salman’s Christmas gift to President Trump, the promise to help rebuild Syria, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
  • For the time being any improvement in relations between Turkey and the Gulf states appears unlikely.
  • The moment of truth for Ankara’s Syria policy seems to have come.
  • For a good number of years, Ankara has been running in a narrow alley in Syria not only between Russia and the US but also between its defiant public discourse and the realities on the ground.
  • President Trump’s promise of a pullout from Syria was welcomed by Ankara but the bilateral agenda remains as loaded as ever. John Bolton’s upcoming visit to Ankara, the messages he would convey on Syria and Iran can lead to new fluctuations.
  • Nonetheless, the current picture also offers a window of opportunity. To seize it, “Turkey which represents the interests of the opposition” to use Mr Putin’s words, can start to encourage such groups to seek an understanding with Damascus. Because the regime change project has failed. These groups are left with no other option and Turkey’s interests dictate the ending of the Syrian conflict and the return of 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
  • As for the YPG, the best way to deal with it would be to guard the 910-kilometre border, punish provocations but let the Assad regime negotiate with its Kurds.
  • It is also time for Ankara to resume diplomatic relations with Damascus.

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(*) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/even-without-troops-the-us-can-still-have-influence-in-syria/2018/12/27/757582b8-0a08-11e9-85b6-41c0fe0c5b8f_story.html?utm_term=.3f97390f5925

(**) http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3469256

Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog: https://diplomaticopinion.com/2019/01/01/syrian-conflict-moment-of-truth-for-turkey/