Moscow-Ankara Break-Up May Hurt Damascus

Ankara and Damascus are archenemies at the moment. Yet the fates of the two countries they belong to are tied together. Ankara’s future policy in Syria would very much determine the destiny of the latter. The end of Turkey’s three year old flirt with Russia might pave the way for the disintegration of Syria.

Turkey is geographically situated between West and East. In Syria quagmire, Turkey has been trying to find a way to advance it’s interests between the rival policies of the US and Russia. To put it bluntly, Ankara has been playing Moscow and Washington against each other. But it is obvious that this game will come to end sooner or later.

Moscow already raised a red flag and sent a strong message to Ankara by giving free hand to the Syrian army to advance to Idlib, hit the Turkish military convoy on its way to Morek and encircle the Turkish observation post in Morek. Thus ahead of the 14th round of the Astana talks between its guarantors Turkey, Russia and Iran, scheduled to take place September 16 in Turkey, Moscow openly signals that Ankara should be either a friend or foe. Moreover, if the claims of some Turkish sources are true that the Turkish convoy was hit by a Russian pilot, meaning Turkey and Russia were in direct confrontation with each other, that message is indeed a very serious one.

After Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, there was a honeymoon mood between Turkey and Russia. Yet seemingly Turkey’s safe zone accord with the US has spoiled it. The accord that was announced on August 7, seeking to create a “Kurds free strip” along the Turkish border” might prevent Damascus from returning to those areas and would be a threat to its territorial integrity as well as Russian interests in the region”, Moscow concerns. Thus, the situation in Idlib, the attacks of jihadist rebel groups is in secondary importance for Moscow according to the military experts. But more than anything the renewal of the Turkish-American alliance was what really alarmed Moscow.

The agreement between Ankara and Washington was struck after Turkey threatened to launch unilateral military action against the American backed Kurdish group the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK which Turkey has been fighting since the 1980s.

Although the details of the agreement are still vague, it “guarantees the gradual establishment of a proposed safe zone near the Syrian-Turkish borders for the Syrian civilians who had fled the conflict, with Turkish demands to exclude the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)- mainly composed of Kurdish YPG- from the borders.” It seems that there will be a five-kilometre buffer zone from which the SDF will not be allowed to operate with US and Turkish forces jointly patrolling it up to a depth of 9 kilometres, all SDF heavy weapons will be removed although infantry personnel belonging to the militia will be allowed to remain.

On Aug. 23 a day after the Syrian army surrounded the Turkish observation post in northwest Syria, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that the SDF had begun withdrawing in northeast Syria and demolished their military fortifications. Therefore, the first phase of a safe zone plan began. How successful it would be to avert Turkey’s concerns regarding its border security is a wild guess but it might provide more legitimacy to the YPG under the protection of the US according to some concerned Turkish circles.

In opposition to Washington’s alleged plans to establish an autonomous Kurdish administration in North and East Syria, Ankara, Tehran, Damascus and Moscow are seeing eye to eye. A Kurdish autonomous region in Syria and its recognition by the US and international institutions would pave the way for the disintegration of Syria and set a model for the Kurdish population in Turkey and Iran as well. The real motivation behind the Astana process between those parties started in 2016 was this common concern.

Yet as a Turkish Anatolia News agency’s commentary suggests, “The Syrian Arab Army is on the verge of killing Astana process and the Astana process is now facing a significant test that could seal its fate.”

Idlib has been a thorny issue between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara has been trying to prevent Damascus’s final attack to Idlib populated by up to two million civilians and scores of various rebel groups, some of them jihadis. In addition to Ankara’s sensitivity to protect the pro-Turkey rebel groups such military advance would start a new massive wave of refugees towards Turkey. Even at the moment, there is reportedly a significant build up at the Turkish border across Idlib. Thus, in September 2018 a demilitarized zone deal was struck in Sochi between Turkey and Russia within the framework of the Astana process.

Turkey set up 12 observation points to observe the cease-fire between the Syrian regime forces and the rebels and committed to fight against the extremist groups and prevent their attacks against the Syrian regime forces. But apparently, Turkey couldn’t succeed in this impossible mission. The jihadists did not pull back from the zone as agreed, and the regime and Russian forces started an intense bombardment of the region. The ceasefires didn’t hold and the Syrian regime military advance started.

Turkey is now stuck in Idlib with little room to manoeuvre. Perhaps the meeting between Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow on Tuesday might produce an exit route for Turkey. Yet the situation created a golden opportunity for the pro-Western lobby in Turkey to raise an opposition campaign against Russia and the current Syrian policy of the Erdogan administration.

A heated debate is going on in Turkey at the moment. Some are saying that “Turkey should cooperate with Damascus regarding the Kurds in northeastern Syria because its interests correspond with those of Damascus’ in this regard rather than with those of Washington.” The others defend good relations with Kurds under the auspices of Washington while some are saying that Turkey can’t go farther with Russia in Syria since their interests are diverging and the Astana process was a trap.

The Idlib incident shows that sooner or later Turkey has to decide between Moscow or Washington. That decision would be a vital one for Syria as well.