Will Putin keep his promises to Erdoğan over Afrin?
The pace of efforts to end the years-long Syrian civil war through a political solution has recently entered a state of constant acceleration. Several factors are contributing to this.
First, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is practically over. The group has lost supporters and resources as well as almost all its territory in both Syria and Iraq. Many say the remnants of ISIL-controlled regions will be completely cleared by 2018.
Second, the ceasefire between the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups has largely been honored thanks to the efforts of Turkey, Russia and Iran as part of the Astana Process. With violence levels drastically reduced, many key actors talk about reviving efforts to find a political solution.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on this point in a joint declaration two weeks ago.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Putin on Nov. 13 in Sochi, where the two leaders decided to hold a three-way summit along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi on Nov 22.
This weekend, the foreign ministers from the three countries will hold initial talks in Antalya, Turkey. Three top commanders are also expected to come together to discuss military aspects of developments ahead of the summit.
Meanwhile the Kremlin has said the Sochi summit “should touch on further steps to ensure the long-time normalization of the country.”
It is no secret that Turkey’s priorities and objectives in Syria differ to those of Russia and Iran. President Erdoğan admitted as much in a statement on Nov. 17 in Ankara, but also stressed a preference for cooperation over rivalry between the three countries.
Nevertheless, he also spelled out Turkey’s red line on certain issues:
1. Turkey will never allow the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to enter negotiations into the future of Syria. Ankara considers the YPG to be an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore a terrorist organization.
2. The YPG should withdraw from cities and regions that historically and culturally belong to other ethnic groups, and the YPG’s efforts to change the demographic structure of these regions should not be allowed. Turkey makes the same call to the U.S., which has been in close partnership with the YPG against ISIL since 2015.
3. According to Erdoğan, Putin promised to withdraw Russian troops from Afrin during their bilateral meeting in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit in July. Afrin, which borders Turkey, is one of three cantons that the YPG has been trying to merge (the other two are in eastern Syria). Russia has troops in Afrin and retains close ties with the group.
4. Turkey will establish 12 observation spots inside the Idlib region. Russians and Iranians have long negotiated with Turkey over the locations of these spots. Turkey’s first two observation spots have been established along the line separating Idlib and Afrin, which also allows Turkey to monitor the YPG’s activities. Turkey has also stressed that Afrin is a strategically sensitive area to Turkish eyes and will not tolerate any provocative actions inside this canton.
On Nov. 17, Erdoğan used strong words to underline the following: “What we must do is cleanse Afrin of terror organizations, both the PYD and the YPG. We are seriously disappointed that the U.S. has failed to keep its promises. We don’t want to face a similar situation in Afrin.”
Upcoming talks in Sochi will show whether Putin will keep his promises to Erdoğan or disappoint him.