Turkey’s Problem with the US-Russia Plan

Turkey’s Problem with the US-Russia Plan

“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”

This sentence of American author Ralph Waldo Emerson outlines countries’ policy-making vis-à-vis Syria. The balance of power is so sensitive and changes so quickly in Syria that countries are changing their plans at the same pace.

It is only Iran and Russia who have been able to stick to their Plan A, which is Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. Having hosted Assad in Moscow last week, Russia’s President Putin now seems much more confident about this objective and Assad looks much more durable than ever before.

The U.S., Europe, Turkey and Gulf countries, on the other hand, all had to change their plans upon Russia’s intervention in Syria. They have all shifted from their Plan A, which was the immediate removal of Assad, to Plan B, which is “transition with Assad.” 

Moreover, the U.S. is dancing more and more to Russia’s tune. Last week, the two countries signed an agreement that regulates all aircraft and drone flights over Syria through a direct line of communication.

Besides, the U.S. doesn’t seem uncomfortable about Russia’s operation at all. To the contrary, it is quite content that Russia hits Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Nusra targets in Syria, both of which the U.S. considers as terrorist groups. This greatly diminishes its own burden. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry lately said he “appreciates the fact that Russia has chosen to focus on this issue.” 

Furthermore, it looks like the U.S. and Russia have agreed behind the scenes to have Moscow work to convince Assad to sit at the table and compromise with the opposition. Putin’s recent statement that “Assad will be ready to compromise in the name of his country” is a strong indicator of this. Upon this last week, Alexander Yushchenko, member of Russia’s Communist Party, said after meeting Assad in Damascus that Assad is ready to discuss constitutional reform and to conduct elections. 

Kerry’s statement, on the other hand, that “Russia’s new focus on fighting ISIL could be an opportunity to push towards a political settlement,” further affirms such a bilateral agreement.

The U.S. also seems to have come to terms with Russia’s strong link with Iran. Putin has integrated Iran much deeper into Syria. So deep that the U.S. realized that a solution for Syria cannot be achieved without Iran and hence has added a chair for Tehran to the table in the Syria meeting in Vienna.

In short, the U.S. is approaching Russia’s plan more and more, and actually its Plan B seems to be Russia’s Plan A.

Turkey, on the other hand, has been moving along the U.S.  The recent statement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that a “transition with Assad is possible,” indicates that Ankara is moving along the U.S.’ axis. 

Ankara is also aware of the fact that Iran has become the key actor in Syria. This is why an important source from Ankara who I spoke with last week said “Iran is the main obstacle for Assad’s removal.” 

Yet, there is a point which decouples Turkey from the U.S.’ new plan: the U.S. and Russia agree on the role of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the fight against ISIL. It is now as clear as day that they both want to go on with the PYD down the road.

Washington now focuses more than ever on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria who are its strongest ally on the ground. This is why Obama indicated last week that, from now on, the U.S. will give weight to the Kurdish forces, after declaring that the train-and-equip-program has come to its end. Following this statement, the U.S. sent ammunition and arms to the PYD.

And now the PYD is just about opening an office in Moscow. In addition, Putin said last week that Assad reacted positively to the idea of working with some rebel groups in the region against ISIL, particularly the Kurds.

Turkey, on the other hand, is getting tougher towards the PYD. Erdoğan recently said there are 1,400 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members within the PYD and that “Turkey won’t sacrifice northern Syria and would not allow countries to change the situation in northern Syria.” Right after this, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the Turkish army has hit the PYD in northern Syria twice for violating Turkey’s red line that the PYD should not move to the western part of the Euphrates River.

The reason why Ankara is reacting this sharply is because the PYD is just about to pass west of the Euphrates, i.e. unite the cantons of Kobane, Jazira and Afrin, which would lead to an autonomous Kurdish entity along Turkey’s southern borders. 

The second reason of Turkey’s concern is the rising terrorism since June 2015, i.e. the threat that the PYD and PKK pose to the country. The source from Ankara who I mentioned above emphasized that Ankara expected the PYD to further itself from the PKK, yet this has not taken place. He added that Ankara had taken a chance on normalizing relations with the PYD when it expected the peace process in Turkey to continue. Hence, resuming the peace talks would enable to smooth relations with Syrian Kurds.

In short, the PYD factor removes Turkey from the newly emerging plan on which the U.S. and Russia agree to a great extent. Furthermore, this creates an extra problem for Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and Russia. 

We are skating on super-thin ice. So Turkey has to be super-fast in taking the necessary steps and catching up with the new plan.