Will the Turkish army start pulling back from Syria?
As usual, Turkish diplomacy is going through yet another hectic period due to developments on multiple fronts.
On Dec. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a brief visit to Ankara after short trips to Syria and Egypt, having his third face-to-face meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in less than a month.
Putin issued two main important messages in his visit to Russia’s permanent military base Hmeymim in Syria on Dec. 11. Firstly, he said the “war on terror” in Syrian territory has nearly been accomplished, thanks to the Russian military intervention since September 2015. He also said he issued a formal order for the commencement of a gradual pull back of Russia’s deployment from the war-torn country.
It seems that Putin’s unannounced visit to Syria, a first since the civil war broke out, was a surprise to Ankara, which was hoping to discuss in detail with Putin the ongoing tension over U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Obviously, the Russian president’s priority was Syria – unlike Turkey, which has become the most vocal regional and Muslim-majority country in challenging Trump’s Jerusalem gambit.
However, Putin has of late opted to take a more balanced and cautious stance, in a bid not to lose Russia’s standing in the eyes of both Israel and Palestine. Moscow may be hoping to one day gain the status of “honest broker” between the two sides, if conditions ever prevail for a resumption of the peace process.
Going back to the Syrian theater, it may be perfectly claimed that Russia’s announcement that it will begin withdrawing troops constitutes a strong message to other countries that currently have military presence in this country, namely Turkey and the U.S.
In his addresses both in Syria and Turkey, Putin made clear that it’s time to settle a political solution to the civil war and all actors should be ready to genuinely contribute to it. One dimension of this call requires the active participation of the mentioned countries to provide a political framework to this end, and the other is about the need of the withdrawal of other foreign troops within Syrian territories.
Maybe it’s because of this Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Dec. 12 expressed Ankara’s skepticism over to what extent Russian troops will be withdrawn from Syria. Furthermore, Çavuşoğlu recalled that Russia will maintain two large military bases in Syria with a sizeable military force in the field.
Although he did not say it directly, he also underlined the fact that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin canton of Syria was still posing a threat to Turkey and that the Turkish government would never hesitate to act to clear this area from threatening forces.
Turkey still has troops in Idlib, as part of plans to establish de-escalation zones, and in al-Bab, as part of its Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria, and an imminent withdrawal of its military presence should not be anticipated.
No hasty moves should be expected from the Turkish army, as a solution to the Syrian war is still far from visible.