Russia’s position on Turkish-American withdrawal plan

Russia’s position on Turkish-American withdrawal plan

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit today to Moscow comes at a very crucial milestone with regard to Syria. 

Erdoğan’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 will question to what extent Ankara and Moscow will be able to continue their cooperation in Syria amid all these sound and fury over the U.S. plans to withdraw from the country.

The core of the talks will be based on the very recent decision by United States President Donald Trump who ordered the complete pullout of the U.S. troops from Syria.

The Erdoğan-Putin meeting follows the intensified talks between Turkey and the U.S. for a coordinated withdrawal of the latter’s troops so that the process will not pave the way for the resurrection of ISIL in eastern Syria as well as other unwanted developments.

Turkish-American negotiations include setting up a security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, a measure that can address Ankara’s concerns on the YPG and at the same time can provide a sort of protection to the same group which Ankara recognizes as a terror organization.

Erdoğan and Trump seem to make some progress on said issues, particularly on a buffer zone that stretches 20 miles deep inside Syria as well as on Turkey’s getting control of Manbij district of Syria from the U.S. Still, there are some very important technical and political problems to be resolved before the two countries can conclude a viable plan on the U.S. withdrawal.

However, the very reality of the Syrian theater stipulates a very strong Russian consent before all these Turkish-American plans could be realized.

From Turkey’s perspective, a Russian consent seems to be inevitable given the very delicate balance created in the Syrian theater. Turkey and Russia, co-founders of the Astana Process and brokers of a key bilateral agreement on Idlib, have always been very careful in not treading each other’s interests. To the contrary, they worked together to reduce violence in the entire country and for a political settlement in accordance with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. Neither side wants to see a break in this cooperation.

Plus, Turkey could have staged two main anti-terror operations into Syria to eliminate the presence of ISIL and the YPG along its borders thanks to Russia’s consent. It also had established observations spots inside Idlib and reinforced them lately in line with an agreement with Russia. These make clear that any military action by Turkey inside Syria can hardly be doable without any deal with the Russians.

At this point, crucial questions come to the surface: Will Russia approve a Turkish-American plan to set up a buffer zone, which would require aerial protection of this territory by the U.S.? Or would Russia say “yes” to Turkey’s penetration into the territories to be left by the U.S., like Manbij and military facilities in the east of River Euphrates? What would be the Russian reaction if Turkey, logistically supported by the U.S., engages in a fight against ISIL in southern Syria? And perhaps, most importantly, how will all these will affect Turkish-Russian partnership regarding Syria?

Some pro-government pundits are optimistic that Russia will give a green light to Turkey’s call for setting up a security zone as breaking this partnership will not be to its advantage either. Russia, however, has been very careful in not making comprehensive statements on the matter other than some brief statements by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

It, of course, wants to see what this plan will look like and hear the objectives first-hand before making its position clear. Today’s meeting will constitute an important venue for Moscow before voicing its own position on everything Turkey and the U.S. have been discussing nearly for more than a month.