With Turkey’s incursion backfiring, both Moscow and the Kurds may be closer to achieving their goals in Syria than Ankara.

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Original article by Raman Ghavami, October 29, 2019

On October 22, the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held a seven-hour summit in the resort town of Sochi to discuss Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. Many experts and journalists are portraying the agreed deal as a success for Ankara and Moscow as opposed to the Kurds, whose dreams of autonomy are now described as shattered.

Turkey has been seeking to drive out the Kurds from its borders and disarm Kurdish forces in Syria. Russia’s priority, however, is to eliminate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rivals. The Kurds want their rights to be recognized within Syria and also by the international community. Recent developments indicate that both Moscow and the Kurds may be closer to achieving their goals than Ankara.   

Turkey and Russia have had signed many memoranda on Syria in the past, such as on Idlib, and the majority of them have been unbalanced in Russia’s favor. Moreover, the Kremlin has never fulfilled its promises to Turkey when it comes to Syria. For instance, despite agreements between Russia and Turkey to prevent Assad’s forces from attacking Idlib, Damascus has kept up its attacks on the province, and Moscow shows no interest in stopping them. Russia can simply suspend the implementation of what has been agreed between Putin and Erdogan this time, and there is little Turkey can do to confront Moscow.

Understanding the Memorandum

In order to understand who has gained what, it is important to untangle the nuanced language used in this Memorandum of Understanding Between Turkey and the Russian Federation, and what each point really means. The memorandum, once again, demonstrates Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic savviness.

First of all, the two sides reiterated their “commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria and the protection of national security of Turkey.” This is the basis of the Astana talks, but Russia and Iran have always expressed their concerns that the nature of Turkey’s actions threatens the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria. This part of the agreement, therefore, has nothing to do with the Kurds because Russia has never claimed the Kurds want independence in Syria. Consequently, addressing Syrian territorial integrity is an indication of Moscow’s opposition to Turkey’s move to occupy parts of Syria.

Second, the two sides emphasized their “determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations and to disrupt separatist agendas in the Syrian territory.” This may sound like a reflection of Turkish concerns regarding what it considers to be Kurdish terrorism. However, Russia doesn’t consider the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to be either terrorist organizations or separatists. Thus, this second point doesn’t indicate that Russia has changed its position and now recognizes the YPG or PYD as terror groups.

On the contrary, despite Turkey’s opposition, during the joint press conference, Putin stressed that he recognizes Kurdish rights as part of multicultural Syria, insisting that the Kurdish issue should be resolved through negotiations with Damascus. Additionally, Russia has always been open to the idea of a federal Syria, something that the Kurds are pushing for. Furthermore, in practice, Putin regards Turkish-backed groups that Erdogan refers to as the Syrian National Army to be terrorist organizations.

Third, the memorandum calls for the preservation of the established status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area covering Tel Abyad (Gre Spi) and Ras Al Ayn (Sari Kani) within a depth of 32 kilometers inside Syria. Turkish officials have been presenting this point as a great success for Turkey. However, there are two growing issues. First of all, YPG forces may conduct attacks in these areas alongside Assad forces in order to push back against Turkey and Turkish-backed groups, so this so-called safe zone could turn into a war zone. Putin will not concede this for nothing in return.

We also can’t ignore that the two leaders may have discussed the situation in Idlib province as well. There could very well be a secret deal, in which Turkey has sold out the forces it backs in the province. Indeed, at the same time as the Sochi summit was being held, Bashar al-Assad was visiting his troops in Idlib as they started shelling the province, aiming to move forward and take more territory from Turkey-backed groups. This could result in another war zone in the area, with Turkey having to back down and watch the groups it backs crumble.

For Russia, Idlib has always been the most difficult part to retake. The region is controlled by al-Qaeda affiliated groups, which have the most battle-hardened fighters, supported by Turkey. The fall of Idlib could be the end of Ankara’s influence in Syria, leaving Turkish experts to wonder what Erdogan is going to do with the 110,000 rebels it backs, who are mostly Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda fighters.

Arm Twists and Handshakes

Fourth, both sides reaffirmed the importance of the Adana agreement, with the Russian side agreeing to facilitate its implementation in the current circumstances. This is where Vladimir Putin finally finds his opportunity to twist Erdogan’s arm. For years, Russia has been trying to stop Erdogan from pursuing the removal of Assad with the help of Sunni Islamist groups and to reestablish relations between Syria and regional countries, domestic forces and the population of Syria. By pushing Erdogan to accept working within the framework of the Adana agreement, Russia wants Erdogan to recognize the regime in Damascus, with Moscow facilitating a handshake between Erdogan and Assad. For the first time, Russia turned this into a written commitment.

However, Erdogan has to do more than shake hands and recognize Assad’s regime. According to a bilateral security agreement signed between Syria and Turkey in 2011, known as the Ankara agreement, the Adana agreement is only valid if the 2011 accord is implemented. According to that document, Turkey is obliged to fight groups threatening Assad’s regime. It will be interesting to follow how this will work out for Turkey.  

As per article 5 of the memorandum, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons to the depth of 30 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. At that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will start in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring with a depth of 10 kilometers, except Qamishli city, the capital of the Kurdish region in Syria.

Since 2011, Erdogan has been trying to keep Syrian government forces away from the borders. The Turkish president has continuously claimed that the “Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy and is not in a position to ensure its territorial integrity.” Now, Erdogan is forced to back down from this position and endorse the Russian-Iranian roadmap for the Syrian army to take control of the borders. Moreover, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), founded under the umbrella of the YPG, do not have any issue with this as they have been asking Assad and the Russians to take control of the Turkey-Syrian border for years.

Once Assad’s forces are well positioned at the border, Russia-Turkey joint patrols would likely end. The fact that the SDF was not mentioned in this memorandum is also interesting and might be deliberate.

Furthermore, according to the Rojava Information Center, which works closely with the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria, before the Putin-Erdogan summit, a Russian delegation met with the Kurds. As a result, it would appear that the Kurds and the Russians had agreed on handing over border control to Russian and Syrian government forces long before the Sochi summit. Consequently, Russian and Syrian forces have taken the control of border areas between Minbaj and Derik (Al-Malikiyah). It is hard to imagine that YPG forces would fully withdraw beyond the mandated 30 kilometers, and it has been reported that the YPG has simply changed the name in the border areas to “military council” and is conducting joint patrols with Russian forces.

In fact, a border secured by Russia and Syria would enable the Kurds to focus on domestic issues. Approximately 40% of SDF forces were positioned at the borders, but now they can spend more time and resources on infrastructure, education, internal security and countering the Islamic State. Without having anti-aircraft rockets, a missile defense system and not being able to control the airspace, Kurdish forces cannot protect the borders from attacks.

Moreover, the Kurds and the Russians have been discussing a plan to integrate the SDF into the Syrian army as a fifth corps. The commander-in-chief of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, has also announced that his forces would have independence within the military arrangement. If this agreement is implemented, Turkey will have no other choice but to digest the fact that Kurdish forces will remain in the region, but under a different name. Erdogan had hoped to establish a safe zone across Syrian-Turkish borders all the way to Iraq, with military checkpoints inside Kurdish regions, like in Idlib. However, Putin has agreed to none of his demands.

Moveable Border

The memorandum also stipulates that all YPG forces and their weapons will be removed from Manbij and Tal Rifat in west Euphrates. Turkey sees the presence of the YPG as a threat to regions it currently occupies, such as Jerablous and the Kurdish province of Afrin, where the Kurdish forces are targeting Turkey-backed groups. Here, Turkey has not only gained very little, but this arrangement could in fact soon turn into a nightmare for Ankara for two principal reasons. First of all, YPG forces withdrew from Manbij back in June 2018, and the Manbij Military Council, which is part of the SDF, is currently in charge. Moreover, prior to the Sochi summit, in an agreement reached between the SDF and Russia, Russian and Syrian forces were deployed to the region to prevent attacks from Turkey.

Second of all, with regards to the YPG forces in Tal Rifat, if the integration of SDF forces (mentioned in article 5 of the memorandum) happens, the first result — which the Kurds have always requested — would be a joint attack on Turkish-backed jihadist groups that have been occupying Afrin. This has always been the primary demand of the SDF regarding any cooperation with the Syrian army. In return, SDF forces may help the Syrian army to attack areas of Idlib province held by al-Qaeda affiliated groups. It is precisely this partnership that Erdogan never wanted to materialize.

Article 7 of the memorandum stipulates that “both sides will take necessary measures to prevent infiltrations of terrorist elements.” The reality is that, since 2012, the borders controlled by the Kurds have been the most secure and safest borders with Turkey. As such, this article is in fact about border crossings where Turkish-backed groups are operating, such as Idlib.

Article 8 states that “joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.” This suggests that Erdogan’s map of the safe zone has been dismissed. What Erdogan had in mind was establishing a 32-kilometer-deep and 480-kilometer-long safe zone, controlled by Turkey inside Syria, as well as sending back 2 million Syrian refugees. However, Turkey would only be able to conduct joint patrols with Russian forces, in a limited area and only 10 kilometers inside Syria. Furthermore, Turkey will not know if the Kurdish forces and their weapons have withdrawn the promised 30 kilometers, and would have to accept Russia’s word for it. More importantly, Assad’s forces have already started an operation in Ras al-Ayn to drive out the rebels, and heavy clashes are ongoing.

Consequently, Turkish public opinion will demand to know what the point of the incursion was. Moreover, with regards to Syrian refugees, the only way they would voluntarily return to their country is if a political settlement has been achieved in the conflict, as they would evidently prefer going back to their hometowns than an area that could soon turn into a war zone.

In addition, Syrian refugees would not trust Turkish-backed groups positioned in the safe zone to protect them. There is a worldwide understanding that the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army is mostly formed of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. Needless to say, Syrian refugees would therefore not return to a region held by these forces, as the majority of them fled in the first place because of the very same groups. In essence, the aim of this article of the memorandum is to keep the dynamic of conflict alive. Indeed, by preventing Turkey from forcing the Syrian refugees to return, Assad and the Kurdish forces keep the option open to take back these areas.

As mandated by article 9, a joint monitoring and verification mechanism will be established to oversee and coordinate the implementation of the memorandum. Many may think this is a solid guarantee. However, if Russia rejects the grievances Turkey may have with this memorandum, Ankara will receive no backing from the West or regional countries having gone against their calls not to invade northeastern Syria. Now that the Americans have left the border area, and with Turkey facing widespread condemnation for its invasion, the fate of this monitoring process currently rests in the hands of Russia. As a result, Turkey is now on its own and soon may even face backlash from the rebels it currently backs.

Finally, the two sides have agreed to “continue to work on finding a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict within the Astana Mechanism and will support the activity of the Constitutional Committee.” One of the main reasons behind the failure of both the Geneva and the Astana talks is the exclusion of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which still controls one third of the country. Since the start of peace negotiations, Turkey has been the only force behind banning the administration from having a seat at the table.

However, now that Turkey is under unprecedented pressure, Russia and other players may push Ankara to accept the participation of the Kurds in the ongoing talks. Indeed, in the joint press conference, President Putin made it clear that “the rights of the Kurds in Syria should be respected.” Furthermore, for the first time, Americans are publicly talking about securing a seat for the Kurds at the negotiation table. This stipulation of the memorandum could yet turn into the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish lands.

Playing their Hand

Nonetheless, it all depends on how the Kurds play their hand. It is important that they maintain their neutral position in Syria. Ironically, the Kurds are now arguably in a better position than before Turkey’s invasion in terms of their political demands as well as militarily. Predictably, Erdogan’s move has been highly counterproductive for Turkey. For instance, for the first time, Kurdish politicians in Syria are welcomed by foreign ministers, invited to the US Congress and meeting with US officials.

Abdi has been invited to the White House, has held talks with the Russian defense minister and was praised by US President Donald Trump. The international community, with public opinion behind it, is for the first time openly rejecting Turkey’s claims of “border security” and the “YPG threat.”

In addition, there is now an emerging consensus among the international community that Turkey’s priority is not counterterrorism but the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and other minorities in the region — not an unfamiliar pattern with regards to Turkey’s genocidal campaigns in the past. Furthermore, Turkey is now accused of war crimes and of using prohibited weapons against civilians, which could have severe implications for Ankara.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Russia would sound the death knell for the Kurds as neither the Kurds nor the Arabs in northeastern Syria accept Assad’s rule over their region. Consequently, Russia will try to gain some legitimacy for Assad by working with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria until a political solution is reached. This explains Moscow’s insistence on the need for negotiations between the Kurds and Damascus as vital. The Russians have also made it clear that they are willing to do anything necessary in this regard.

Additionally, keeping some US forces in the SDF-held territories as well as reports of heavy reinforcements of US forces to the region give the Kurds another card to play in their negotiations with Moscow and Syria. Nevertheless, the Kurds should also reach out to Europe and regional countries for support in order to make a success of these talks.

Finally, beyond demonstrating that this invasion is not going to according to Erdogan’s plan, the memorandum is also having deeper consequences for the Turkish president. What is revealing are the cracks that are beginning to appear within Turkey’s political circles, even more so among those who initially supported President Erdogan’s move. A former Turkish government official has recently asked the US to dismiss Erdogan’s claims, and the very same Turkish expert who cheered Turkey’s military operations is now asking Erdogan to negotiate with the Kurds in Syria.

More importantly, the leader of the main opposition group in Turkey, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who publicly supported Erdogan’s invasion of Syria, is now accusing Erdogan of “arming terrorist and jihadists and isolating Turkey.” In a speech before parliament, Kilicdaroglu went on to accuse Ankara, alongside Qatar, of facilitating the passage of terrorists from Asia, Europe and America through Turkey into Syria. Turkey is also charged with undermining the fight against the Islamic State, with questions being asked about how the group’s notorious leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US raid on October 26, was able to hide for months in a region controlled by Turkish army and intelligence.

It seems that now that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters have understood that what they hoped for with this military operation is not going to happen, many are trying to distance themselves from the president. Indeed, with Turkey’s move backfiring, Ankara’s gamble may end up costing it an unexpectedly high price.

*[This piece has been updated.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.