After his remarks in Israel, John Bolton’s visit to Turkey was doomed to failure. So, it was left to Senator Lindsey Graham to repair or at least control the damage. In Ankara, he publicly said everything possible to cajole Turkey’s political leadership into cooperation with Washington in Syria and beyond. He said that withdrawing and leaving the Kurdish fighters with weapons supplied by the United States would be insane. He mentioned YPG’s affiliation with the PKK. He referred to the special relationship between presidents Trump and Erdogan. The timing of his visit was well-chosen on the eve of US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford’s talks in the Turkish capital.
During his remarks to the press following his talks in Ankara, Senator Graham spoke alternately of a safe zone and a buffer zone in Syria. At least this was how Turkish newspapers translated his remarks. But the two do not exactly overlap. A buffer zone is a neutral area separating conflicting forces. A safe zone is an area where people who are not involved in the fighting may find a degree of refuge during armed conflict. Safe zones have sometimes been accompanied also no-fly zones.
What the Turkish government had in mind all along was the latter, an area providing refuge under Turkish military supervision. The question, therefore, seems to be whether Turkish-American officials would find a middle ground between a buffer zone and a safe zone.
Presidents Erdogan and Putin met in Moscow last Wednesday. During their joint news conference, both leaders emphasized two countries’ expanding cooperation in multiple areas. But the focus was on Syria. (*)
As expected, President Putin said that the two leaders discussed what additional steps Russia and Turkey could take to stabilize the situation around Idlib. He underlined that supporting the cease-fire should not come at the expense of the struggle against terrorists. He expressed support for dialogue between Damascus and Kurdish representatives. And, he referred to the 1998 Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey as “the legal framework that covers many issues relating to ensuring Turkey’s security on its southern borders.”
President Erdogan said, “Turkey-Russia cooperation is a cornerstone of Syria’s peace, security and stability… Our only goal as a state is to fight terrorist groups and to clear the territory from these elements, primarily ISIS and YPG. We know well who supports them… Meetings continue on the creation of a security zone…”
What to make of the two visits?
- Following a phone call with President Trump on January 15, President Erdogan stated that the two had reached an understanding of historic significance. Then came Senator Graham’s visit. Yet, the so-called “Manbij roadmap” remains a question. Talks on the “buffer zone/security zone” continue but this is not a strictly bilateral issue.
- The Turkish-American bilateral agenda is a long one and additions are not in short supply. Turkish prosecutors have now asked life sentence for a local employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul for attempting to overthrow the government and espionage.
- Moreover, Washington is now at war with Venezuela’s President Maduro whereas the Turkish government stands solidly and vocally behind him.
- Presidents Erdogan and Putin took care to highlight their agreements during their news conference in Moscow. Nonetheless, they could not completely mask their differences.
- Russia wants Turkey to resume dialogue with Damascus. On the way back from Moscow President Erdogan rejected the possibility of any high-level contacts with Damascus. Whether this leaves the door open to meetings of senior officials remains to be seen.
- Russia wants Turkey to address its security concerns not with Washington but with Damascus. Yet, the modalities of the US pullout from Syria are still not clear.
- Russia wants Turkey to secure the approval of Damascus for its military presence in Syria. For Moscow, any legitimate foreign military presence in Syria requires either an invitation by Damascus or a UN Security Council resolution. President Erdogan on the way back from Moscow stated that the Turkish military did not need an invitation to enter Syria since they were responding to terrorist attacks.
- The 1998 Adana Agreement successfully negotiated by ambassador Ugur Ziyal, a career diplomat, was a unilateral commitment by father Assad to end Syria’s support to the PKK. It was total surrender.
- However, as Mr Putin must know, on December 21, 2010, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a non-career diplomat, signed a new and broader agreement with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem on combatting terrorism. The Agreement which explicitly mentions the PKK but “other terrorist organizations” as well was ratified by the Turkish parliament on April 6, 2011. Only four months later, on August 9, 2011, Minister Davutoglu visited Damascus; met with President Assad and that was the end of the Turkish government’s infatuation with the Syrian leader. The Arab spring had started to engulf Syria.
- In other words, if Ankara and Damascus were to sit down to see what they can do to combat terrorism, more than the Adana Agreement will be on the table. Because groups regarded by Turkey as the “moderate opposition” are only terrorists for Damascus.
- While Russia remains determined to launch Syria’s political transition under the Astana process other countries seem to prefer Geneva as revealed by President Putin’s reference to a letter by the UK, France and Germany at the news conference.
- The war in Syria is essentially over, the exception being Idlib.
- The path to peace may prove just as arduous.
- Ankara continues to face the momentous task of balancing its interests with Moscow and Washington in Syria and beyond.
- In a radio broadcast on October 1, 1939, Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest…”
- Ankara’s foray into the Syrian conflict was not a dictate of Turkey’s national interest. It was inspired by ideology. Hopefully, the key to our exit will be the national interest.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog: https://diplomaticopinion.com/2019/01/25/turkeys-syria-labyrinth/