Erdoğan and Putin won in Syria. Who’s the loser?

Turkish President Erdoğan (L) and Russian President Putin seem tired but happy after 6-hour long talks in Sochi on October 22. (Photo: Turkish Presidency)

Following the U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin not to allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria; and Putin convinced Erdoğan to cooperate with the Syrian regime, if not personally with Bashar al-Assad.
Two hours before the expiry of a 120-deadline deal between the U.S. and Turkey ended on October 22, Turkey cut a similar deal with Russia with a deadline of 150-hours for clearing the remaining parts of Turkish-Syrian border the elimination from YPG forces, the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish and Russian ministers Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sergey Lavrov read the 10-point Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which was agreed on by Erdoğan and Putin during 6-hours long talks in the Russian Black sea resort of Sochi.
In this memorandum, parties agreed that Russian and Syrian forces start, as of noon on October 23, the 150-hour process to eliminate YPG/PKK forces from a 30-km-deep zone extending from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border for a total of 440 km. The 120-km of it is already under Turkish military control as a result of the Peace Spring campaign launched on October 9 and stopped on October 22 as the U.S. forces evacuated the area from the YPG/PKK forces which they have been using as their ground force against ISIS since 2014. After the 150-hrs period, which ends at 18.00 hrs Turkish time (16.00 GMT) Russian and Turkish forces will patrol the same area at 10-km-deep, except the city of Qamishli near Iraqi border which is already under partial control of the Syrian regime. Russia also accepted to evacuate the towns of Manbij and Tel Rifaat from the YPG/PKK, leaving no settlement areas near the (total of 910 km) Turkish Syrian border under the control of the Kurdish militant group.

Erdoğan won, Putin won more

Erdogan has thereby achieved his goal – which he has been insistent about – of removing the YPG/PKK presence from its border with Syria. It was clear that Putin wouldn’t send Erdoğan empty-handed from the Sochi meeting when he invited him to Sochi during the telephone call from Erdoğan on October 16, following Trump’s revelation of his scandalous letter and U.S. Congress’s demands of more sanctions. It was Putin who set the date for October 22, a day before the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence set the 120-hrs deadline with Erdoğan in Ankara on October 17.
Erdoğan here has managed to more or less succeed in his highly risky game of playing the Russian and U.S. cards against each other. Persistent Turkish diplomacy, involving the use of military power, despite the cost of harsh reactions from Western allies and facing economic sanctions, has eventually worked.
So, did Putin help Erdoğan get what he wanted because he wants the best for Turkey, pro bono? Of course not. Putin is considered as the biggest winner of the Syria crisis all over the world; Syria crisis turned into a ticket for Moscow to have its comeback to the Middle East after decades. And he’s taken something he wanted from Erdoğan, something important: the promise to get through this process in cooperation with the Syrian regime from now on.
What points out to this in the Memorandum is a reference to the Adana Agreement Turkey and Syria in 1998 after Damascus had to extradite Öcalan upon Turkish pressure which led to his arrest in 1999. In article 4 of the MoU, Russia’s “facilitator” role is underlined; this expression is used in diplomacy as a lighter form of mediation. And Moscow’s “facilitator” role had been unveiled last week by Russia’s Syria Special Representative Aleksandr Lavrentyev when he said that Turkish and the Syrian governments were in “real-time” communication via their foreign and defence ministries and intelligence services.

Towards the Geneva talks on Syria

The Adana Agreement has certain implications in this context. It suggests Turkish cooperation with the Assad’s regime in Syria. This might explain Erdoğan’s sweet-sour mimics during the Press Conference and the look Putin gave him as if to say “OK, but we’ve agreed now, right?”
Putin also knows well that Erdoğan had gotten involved with the Syria issue with completely different goals in mind. According to his plan, al-Assad would go and the Baas regime would topple down, and a new government, preferably Muslim Brotherhood-leaning, would replace it. Now, even if it’s not going as far as being friends with al-Assad, he’s still given his word to Putin that he will cooperate with the Baas regime.
The 150-hour process will end on October 29 and a day later, on October 30, talks on the new Syrian constitution will begin in Geneva: this is no coincidence. This plan was hinted at the end of the Astana Process talks between Erdoğan, Putin and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on September 16 in Ankara. Now that Putin has driven the U.S. out of Syria and made shown he’s got the upper hand in the field (both to Trump and Erdoğan) is now increasing the influence he has over Syria’s political future.

So, who’s the loser?

It’s possible to say that though it’s unclear how much he’ll stay in power, even Bashar al-Assad could be regarded on the winner side. He said “no way” to Putin on the phone after the Sochi deal, but he knows he cannot keep his seat without Putin’s backing.
Even U.S. President Trump, though he had to leave Syria to Russia, has won a little. His decision to withdraw the troops from Syria and his incessant repeating of how much money the U.S. poured into wars in the Middle East could work in his advantage in the 2020 elections.
For now, three parties look like they’ve lost the game. The biggest loser is the YPG/PKK who has been preparing to announce autonomy under the U.S.’s wings have suddenly found themselves out in the open. U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper has welded his way out of a confrontation at the end of the 120-hour agreement process with Turkey, saying that they funded the Kurdish militants to fight ISIS, “not so they can build a state”. This was not the first example of the U.S. and other influential forces in the region inciting the Kurdish armed groups to rise up against regional governments and then letting them down. It would be wise to take the news that “Syrian Kurds have been applauded in Congress” with a pinch of salt: this is politics and the winds of change could blow anywhere, anytime.
Of course, it’s possible to consider Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu as one of the losers in this context: he was vehemently supporting the founding of a Kurdish state as a buffer zone between Israel and Iran.
The European Union is not exactly a winner either. The EU encountered this crisis during one of the heaviest blows of its existence: the Brexit talks. Most of the EU attention was focused on that, and that may be the reason behind why its reactions and statements were falling behind the fast-paced developments. The fear of return of their ISIS member citizens, the fear of refugees and the fear of PKK militants possibly taking actions in their countries could be among the reason why the EU countries have reacted harshly towards Turkey.

The danger’s still there

Yet the dark clouds are still hovering over Turkey. Erdoğan’s realized too late (that is if he did) that his belief that he could solve just about anything with the U.S. President, ignoring the congress was wrong. And because he took so long to realize it, there is now an anti-Turkish sentiment overtaking Congress, due to an anti-Erdoğan sentiment in the first place. The economic sanctions if imposed could hurt Turkey, who is already trying to pull itself together economically. They will especially affect banking, as well as companies doing imports and exports.
There are also serious questions about the return of Syrian refugees to their homes in the suggested Safe Zone. How will Turkey find fund to build villages and towns for refugees in case of lack of international cooperation?
The reactions of the EU public opinion and Turkey’s isolation are ongoing, which can change soon as common interests dominate. But Turkey’s strategic goal was to prevent the founding of a Kurdish state by the PKK at the Syrian-Turkish border. And that goal seems to have been reached, at least for now, through agreements with Russia and the U.S. Under the circumstances, that’s a success.


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