Surprise acts on the Syria stage
The first surprise was a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 29 in Sochi, hours before the official start of the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” regarding the future of Syria.
This was the sixth meeting between the two leaders in the last two years. During it Netanyahu once again asked Russia for help regarding the Iranian presence in Syria resulting from the civil war.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned to Iran and Russia for help during the war. Russia has a naval base in Tartus, an air base in Khmeimim near Latakia, and an undisclosed number of special forces, military advisers and intelligence units in the country. There are currently thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, pro-Iranian Shiite militia forces and Lebanese Hezbollah troops in Syria fighting to defend al-Assad’s regime. Netanyahu is becoming nervous as these forces approach the Golan Heights near the Israeli border.
On the other hand, Putin is getting nervous due to Netanyahu’s bypassing of Russian sensitivities in Syria and his acting in accordance with the Americans, who are collaborating with the Kurdish secessionists. Russia wants the Syrian war to be over as soon as possible, but the U.S. seems to disagree, projecting an extension of its presence there with the help of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a PR-friendly name but effectively the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington justifies this partnership as being necessary in order to finish the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but it is also partly motivated by a wish to form a buffer zone making it difficult for Iranian forces to access Syria.
Neither Turkey nor Russia are pleased with the establishment of a 30,000-strong force in Syria by the U.S. Turkey is against its NATO ally’s collaboration with a branch of the PKK, which has been waging an armed campaign for more than three decades and which is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.. Turkey, Russia and Iran launched the Astana Process a year ago to create a de-escalation zone in Syria, which has so far been working relatively well.
The Sochi talks between al-Assad’s government and designated opposition groups are aimed at paving the way for a political solution in Syria. Russia, Turkey and Iran have sponsored the congress under the auspices of the U.N., with observers from the U.S. and the EU also present. Following Turkey’s diplomatic persistence and military operation against the YPG-held Syrian town of Afrin near its border, Russia did not invite PKK-affiliated groups to Sochi. However, because of that operation most other Kurdish groups that Turkey did not object to opted to stay away from the talks in protest.
Another surprise came when designated opposition groups - not just the Turkey-backed rebels of the Free Syria Army (FSA) - also protested the Sochi congress, as only Syria’s official flag was raised at it. These groups handed over their voting rights to Turkey, which was represented by Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Sedat Önal. This move gave Ankara a stronger hand in Sochi but also more responsibility.
Turkey’s weak point is it can only really carry out military operations in Syria if Russia (and, indirectly, Syria) look the other way. It seems that the U.S. has tied itself up badly in its collaboration with the YPG, with unanswered questions regarding what it will do if the YPG/PKK opts to switch sides. After all, the PKK headquarters was located in Damascus for many years between 1982 and 1998, with the knowledge of Moscow throughout the time. This is certainly an issue that Turkey should also now be thinking about.