An end to Turkish-Russian-Iranian bid in Syria?
The turning point in the years-long Syrian unrest was the launch of a Turkish-Russian cooperation, which evacuated civilians and rebels from Aleppo and saved the lives of around 40,000 people through a cease-fire brokered between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups.
Right after the evacuation in Aleppo on Dec. 20, 2016, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran came together in Moscow and announced the Moscow Declaration, which pledged these three regional powers the role of being guarantors to expand the truce to all of Syria and create conditions for a political transition.
Thanks to the joint efforts of Turkey and Russia, the Syrian regime and the opposition groups agreed on a nationwide cease-fire on Dec. 30, 2016 and on a new round of talks in Astana between Jan. 23 and 24. Along with the three guarantor countries, representatives from the armed opposition groups and the regime met around the same table for the first time since the civil war broke out in early 2011.
Astana hosted two other meetings, with the participation of the three guarantor countries, to reinforce the existing cease-fire and establish adequate joint mechanisms to monitor the implementation of the truce.
It is expected that these efforts and its results will be transferred to next week’s Geneva meetings to be held under the auspices of the United Nations.
This summary was necessary in order to draw an objective picture about the point we have arrived at the Syrian unrest especially at a time when the new administration in the United States is speedily preparing to return to the Middle East.
New CIA chief in Ankara
Turkey’s recent engagement with the Donald Trump administration aims to directly influence Washington’s policies in the region and its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s phone conversation with Trump, a series of high-level contact took place and will continue to happen this weekend.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s visit to Ankara was followed by Chief of General Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s quick visit to the İncirlik airbase, where he met with his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar. In the meantime, Turkish and American defense and foreign ministers held their first face-to-face meetings accompanied with Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s later meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Munich over the weekend.
All these diplomatic traffic have a reason well explained by Turkish officials. Turkey’s al-Bab operation is coming to an end with ISIL jihadists withdrawing from the city to Raqqa, which is located further south in Syria. Below are some of the important aspects of this process:
Ankara at unease over Moscow’s Kurdish card
- Russia and Syria are not happy with Turkey’s plans to go further south inside Syria. The Syrian army has approached al-Bab from the south in recent weeks thanks to Russian aerial support to clear its path from remaining ISIL elements. During the joint operation, Turkish troops have been targeted twice, first by a Syrian air force attack and second by a Russian “unintentional” air strike.
- Meanwhile, Turkey is also unhappy with recent Russian moves toward Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Russia’s unilateral constitution draft distributed to the oppositional groups suggesting a federal Syria with Kurdish autonomy as well as allowing the gathering of a Kurdish conference in Moscow have been both been regarded as unconstructive moves by Ankara. Turkey and opposition groups have obviously shown lesser attention to the third Astana meeting last week because of Russia’s acts.
- Turkey obviously regards Trump’s presidency as a positive development and believes the two can efficiently cooperate in Syria. The most important parameter in this equation would be Washington’s decision to cease its alliance with the PYD and its armed wing People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Although recent talks with the U.S. are regarded as encouraging, it’s still early for Ankara to be sure that the PYD factor will resolved in ties with the Trump administration.
- Erdoğan’s tour to the Gulf countries, where he had extensive talks with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, should also be regarded complimentary to Ankara’s efforts to influence Trump’s future Middle East policies. Erdoğan’s call for Gulf leaders to shoulder responsibility in realizing long-standing projects of establishing safe zones inside Syria is particularly important. This is a clear attempt to widen a potential Ankara-Washington cooperation with the inclusion of the rich Gulf countries.
- In this regard, Erdoğan’s reference to Persian expansionism into the Middle East is significant. It’s still early to see this as an intention to create a joint block with Gulf countries against Iran but is sufficient to draw Tehran’s criticism. Given the fact that Trump and his aides regard Iran as the “single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Ankara’s approach on Tehran will be worth to follow closely.
It’s early to envisage that this recently built Turkey-Iran-Russia cooperation on Syria is risking a collapse as the cease-fire continues despite difficulties, but it’s obvious that the aforementioned developments will have effects on the three guarantor countries. It would be no surprise if Turkey preferred to go slowly as part of this trilateral mechanism.