The Middle East Political and Economic Affairs

Russia’s Syria game plan targets U.S. via Turkey

Turkish and Russian soldiers examnining a map during their first joint patrol along the Syria border on November 1. (Photo: Turkish Defence Ministry)

Russian and Turkish soldiers’ joint patrol against the YPG militants along the Turkey-Syria border started on November 1. It was followed by two key developments.
One was a bomb attack in the Tel Abyad marketplace, resulting in the deaths of 13 and injuries of 20 people. On the same day, on November 2, demonstrations took place in Paris, Berlin and other European cities to mark “Rojava Day”, proclaimed by the YPG, the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in the U.S. “Justice for Kurds” (JFK) platform was issuing a call to “protect the Kurdish allies fighting against ISIS”.
The other development was a declaration made by Major General Yuri Borenkov, head of Russia’s Reconciliation of the Parties in Syria on November 3, which Ankara would not like. Borenkov was sharing the information that the “pro-Turkish militants in Syria” had opened fire in the direction of an American convoy on the move towards Iraq, on the M-4 highway, and that no one had died or gotten injured during the incident. What was interesting in this statement was that Russians had been informed on the incident by Americans and that Russians had spoken almost as if to confirm that. The Russian general said that they detected “31 ceasefire violations within 24 hours” and that “Turkey-backed forces were targeting settlements in Aleppo, Latakia, Idlib and Hama”.
We’ll carry on from there but let’s not go forward without analyzing the developments thus far:
1- It looks like the U.S. has accepted Russia as the referee in the zone where Turkey and Russia hold joint responsibility and is informing Russia as well as its NATO ally Turkey concerning the developments in the zone;
2- Russia is taking its refereeing mission seriously, exposing the adverse actions of the “Turkey-backed militants – meaning the Syrian National Army (SNA) instead of sweeping them under the rug;
3- It looks like the SNA might be bringing more trouble, not only to the relations with the U.S. but with Russia as well.
We can’t say that these developments have made Ankara happy.

Unsteady equilibrium

There are a few more possible outcomes in the scenario. For example, it will probably be difficult for Turkey, back structures like the SNA, which have highly questionable components, for too long. The SNA, “Al-Jayš al-Watanī as-Sūrī” in Arabic, was founded to replace the Free Syrian Army (FSA), during a conference at Nevali Hotel in the Syria border city of Şanlıurfa, Turkey, on October 4, 2019, five days before Turkey’s Peace Spring military campaign. The main reason behind the founding of the SNA was that some jihadis groups within the FSA were no longer willing to cooperate with the “secular Turkish army”. The support for Turkey within the anti-Assad jihadist groups is not as strong as before; especially in the Idlib region, where the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during an October 26 operation by the U.S. Ankara should better single out and cut off connection with any people and groups within the NSA which might have previous links to al-Qaeda, ISIS and affiliates.
Besides, the September 16 Astana Process meeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan held with Russian head of state Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been a turning point, regarding Turkey’s Syria policy.
According to the information YetkinReport has reached, Putin has withdrawn a Syrian government representative who linked to the YPG/PKK from the new constitution talks in Geneva. Erdogan then agreed to include a name from the Syrian opposition delegation, which was approved by Russia, and the formation of a committee of 150 people was thus completed, reviving a political solution process that had been on hold since 2015.
Gair Pedersen, UN Special Envoy for Syria, declared that the gathering of a core group of 45 people (15 each from the Syrian government, the opposition and neutral parties) in Geneva during the meetings that started on September 30th and lasted for two days was a success. Turkey has managed to find itself a seat at the Syria table taking the risk of international isolation and U.S. sanctions threats, using its armed forces. Yet the rest must be solved not at the battleground but around the negotiation table. The proxy wars in Syria are coming to an end.

Russia’s new diplomatic model

Thanks to the mistakes of both Washington and Ankara, Moscow returned to the Middle East through the Syrian civil war. It upgraded its base in Tartus as one of the most modern naval bases in the Eastern Mediterranean and gained a modern airbase in Hmeymim near Latakia. In a sense, it became one of Israel’s neighbors. It tried out its newest weapons in Syria and showcased them at the international market while selling NATO member Turkey its S-400 missiles.
But Putin also tried out a new method of diplomacy in Syria and succeeded. The Astana Process, which has been launched in cooperation with Turkey (and also Iran at the background) and had led the way to the resumption of the Geneva Process, was one of the ways he executed this new diplomacy.
During the conference titled “Turkish-Russian Relations: Shaping the Future”, held at the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO), on October 24-25, one of Russia’s leading Middle East experts and “Islamic World Strategic Vision Group” advisor Benjamin Popov defined this new diplomacy “model”. According to Popov, “the Sochi Agreement has shown that solutions can be found despite the U.S., not only in Syria but all over the world”. This model highlight, Popov elaborated, “a fair approach to the parties” and “understanding the needs of the parties”. When I asked Popov in what other context this model could be put into use he said: “for example, we’re speaking with both Iran and with Saudi Arabia in the Gulf. Then why shouldn’t Russia come together with Turkey and Egypt in Libya?” Speaking at the same conference, renowned Russian historian Andrey Fursoy said that “Turkey, Russia and Syria, which they deemed finished, have together prevented a war that could have resulted in mass deaths and losses in this part of the world”.

What is Putin trying to do?

So to Russia eyes, the Astana Process and the Sochi Agreement was seen as a way to put Turkey in indirect contact with Syria to reach a political solution despite the U.S.
There are two possible ways to read into Putin’s Syria game plan:
1- During the Soviet period, Moscow was trying to undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize at any cost, fueling regional conflicts. Now the tables have turned; while the U.S. seems to be hoping for the prolongation of regional conflicts, Russia is trying to break the U.S. influence through stability;
2- Russia establishes indirect and direct contact on regional matters with the U.S., which is trying to ignore Russia still, by reaching solutions through facilitating the indirect communication between competing regional parties. And it’s doing so with the backing of China’s rising economic and military power.
Putin’s model has reached its first success, thanks to Erdoğan who, through this model, ie Astana, found a way out of his PKK dispute with U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
U.S. forces complaining to Russia about “Turkey-backed militants” in Syria is perhaps the first concrete manifestation of this diplomatic model.