Turkey, Russia on the eve of tough talks on Syria
United States President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria on Dec. 19 after a phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that took place on Dec. 14.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the phone a day after the withdrawal decision in which he tried to convince Washington for a slow and coordinated pullout.
Ankara’s first in-person consultations on Syria, however, will be with Moscow as a very senior team will hold talks with their Russian counterparts over this weekend. A delegation led by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar with the participation of the intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan and President Erdoğan’s spokesperson İbrahim Kalın will be in Moscow on Dec. 29.
These talks are deemed to be preliminary as the Turkish side stresses these will be followed by a face-to-face meeting between Erdoğan and
Russian President Vladimir Putin again in Russia, underscoring the significance of synchronization of two sides’ act and policies on the future of the Syrian question in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.
So far, no substantial assessments came from Moscow on the impacts of the U.S. withdrawal and on how Russian policies will be adjusted accordingly. But strong hints on a new Russian position have been conveyed by Lavrov and his spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who said it was the Syrian regime’s right to enter into areas to be evacuated by the U.S. troops.
It is clear that Russia regards the U.S. withdrawal as a turning point in the seven-year-old civil war to the advantage of Bashar al-Assad regime.
It’s no coincidence that Zakharova cited international law while explaining why Assad regime should get control of the east of Syria.
Furthermore, a Kremlin statement did welcome the return of Syrian government forces to the Manbij area, in a concrete sign of this approach of Moscow. Lavrov, on the other hand, just a day before talks with the visiting Turkish delegation, displayed a rather cold approach on a potential Turkish incursion into the east of Euphrates, saying Moscow was looking into the matter from the perspective of the protection of the territorial integrity of Syria.
Russia’s plan, roughly, would be about Assad’s getting the control of the Syrian territories and pushing for a new constitution in a bid to convince the international public opinion that Syria will be stabilized and normalized. The plan suggests Assad’s re-election through elections.
As a matter of fact, many countries in the world, from Arab to Western nations, are speedily preparing conditions to work with the al-Assad regime. The return of the embassies of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain which would be followed by other Arab countries with the Arab League’s potential decision to reinstate Syria’s membership is sufficient evidence to this end.
Oil-rich countries would, therefore, be the sponsors of the reconstruction of Syria in return of Damascus’ loosening its ties with Iran.
This picture, in general, can be interpreted as Russia’s probable red light against a potential military incursion by the Turkish army into the east of Euphrates. Putin had already announced at a three-way summit in recent months his belief that political settlement for Syria should sit in the core of all multilateral efforts and that big military operations are no longer preferable.
To be more explicit, neither Astana guarantors, Russia and Iran nor Western powers lean towards a new Turkish military offensive into Syria.
Turkey, however, made clear a number of times that its determination in clearing the east of Euphrates of the YPG is there and will not be changed although the Syrian regime would penetrate into these areas.
It continues to reinforce its positions on the border while pressing on the U.S. to implement Manbij roadmap during the withdrawal process so that Turkish troops and the Free Syrian Army can take the control of the said province.
In the meantime, there are reports on the advancement of the Syrian army towards the same area, sparking concerns of an armed conflict between rival groups. The calls by the YPG on the Syrian government to take the control of Manbij and other parts in the east of Syria to stave off the Turkish operation is particularly relevant with all these developments.
In the light of these points, projections that Moscow would press on Ankara to shelve its military operations in order not to complicate the situation in the field would not be unrealistic. However, it should also find ways to assure Turkey that its troops inside Syria and its borders will not be whatsoever threatened by either the YPG or the Syrian army.
In short, the YPG will continue to be one of the key problems in Syria but this time as an issue Turkey has to resolve with Russia and Syria. However, there is no easy solution ahead.