ISTANBUL — The 8-year-old Syrian conflict entered a new phase with a Russian-Turkish accord that fills a power vacuum resulting from the chaotic US withdrawal from the region.
The agreement, reached October 22 at the Russian resort of Sochi, strengthens the positions of Russia, Turkey and the Syrian government in north-eastern Syria at a time when withdrawing US forces were pelted with potatoes and tomatoes by angry locals as they left the region after years of controlling one-third of Syria’s territory.
The dramatic collapse of the US role after US President Donald Trump ordered his troops out of Syria robbed the Syrian-Kurdish militia People's Protection Units (YPG) of a partner and forced them to pull back from the Turkish border, ending Kurdish self-rule in the area.
Following the Sochi deal, which stopped a 2-week-old Turkish military intervention, the rebel stronghold of Idlib is the only region in Syria where significant fighting continues. A total of 150 representatives of the government, the opposition and civil society in Syria are to start talks about a post-war political order in UN-sponsored negotiations October 30 in Geneva.
“We are entering a new phase but we have to wait and see if this could be the end of the war,” said Huseyin Cicek, a political scientist and expert on religion and politics at the Department of Islamic-Theological Studies at Austria’s Vienna University.
The Sochi accord deepened ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey, a development that is causing concern in the United States, NATO and the European Union. A day after the talks, Moscow said it was in contact with Ankara about extra deliveries of Russia-made S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey.
Russia and Turkey have cooperated closely in Syria despite diverging political interests in the conflict. While Russia wants Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power and extend his rule over the whole of Syria, Turkey has been supporting rebel groups fighting the regime and is refusing to deal with Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan worked six hours to hammer out an agreement that was hailed as a triumph by both sides. Erdogan called it “historic.”
Fresh from an agreement with the United States that allowed Turkish troops to occupy a stretch of Syrian territory 100km long and 30km deep previously controlled by Washington’s YPG ally, the Turkish leader went to Sochi seeking an expansion of that zone. However, Putin, while accepting the dimensions of the original Turkish incursion, made sure that Erdogan’s troops would not go further.
After the deal was announced, the Turkish Defence Ministry said the United States had told Turkey the withdrawal of Kurdish militants was complete from the “safe zone” Ankara demands in northern Syria. There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said in a statement, effectively ending its military offensive that began October 9.
The Sochi agreement endorsed the return of Assad’s forces to the border alongside Russian troops, replacing the Americans who had patrolled the region for years with their former Kurdish allies. Russian military police took up positions in the border region a day after Erdogan’s visit to Sochi.
The Damascus government is to build 15 posts along the Syrian border with Turkey, the Russian Defence Ministry said. Russian and Turkish forces are to jointly patrol a 10km strip in the “safe zone.”
Under the deal with Moscow, the length of the border that the YPG must vacate is more than triple the size of the territory covered by the US-Turkish accord, covering most of the area Turkey had wanted to include.
Analysts said Ankara did not push through all its goals. As a result of the Sochi pact, Turkey will have full control over about 100km of Syrian lands along the border, much less than the 440km sought by Ankara. It must share control with Russia and Syria in the other sectors.
“The Sochi deal… puts an end to Turkey’s further territorial gains in Syria,” Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Russian-Turkish relations, said in a message in response to questions. Cicek said Erdogan’s plan for the resettlement of up to 3 million in northern Syria was very unlikely to become reality.
Ankara also accepted a new role for the Assad government in northern Syria and could be pushed by Russia to establish direct contact with Damascus, something Erdogan, an outspoken critic of the Syrian president, had been trying to avoid.
“With the Sochi deal, [the] Kremlin received more effective tools to push Ankara to start an open and direct dialogue with Damascus,” Has wrote. “Ankara officially admits Russia’s role of mediator to restart its relations with Damascus and fully implement the 1998 Adana agreement,” a treaty between Turkey and Syria that allows Turkey to fight terrorist threats in a 5km zone inside Syria and calls for close contacts between the two countries’ security services.
“If the Number One enemy of the Syrian authorities, Erdogan’s Turkey, officially readmits Assad’s rule in current conditions, that would be a huge gain for Russia’s settlement policy in Syria,” Has added.
As a consequence, the Sochi agreement could hasten the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Syria, Has said. “For Moscow, in the light of [the] US troop withdrawal, Turkey clearly shows up as the only ‘uninvited guest’ in Syria, which seems more unacceptable with every passing day.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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