The Astana trio, comprised of Russia, Turkey and Iran, has met on Monday, September 16, 2019 in Ankara for another leaders' summit. This is the 14th meeting of a process dedicated to the finding of a solution to the Syrian crisis and the fifth leaders' summit.
The first summit was held in Sochi in November 2017. The second one in Ankara in April 2018, the third in Tehran in September 2018 and the latest one, once again, in Sochi in February 2019. The process has led to the advent of so-called 'deconfliction zone' military observation oints as well as a commitment to the clearing of Idlib, a city in Syria's northwest, of terrorist groups.
Astana is the gradual consecration of Turkey's Syrian fiasco.In its latest iteration, several measures were undertaken to appease Turkey.
The agenda was set by the assistant of Russian leader Vladimir Putin Yuri Ushakov as "Idlib and the situation in northeast Syria". Idlib, where Turkey has 12 observation points and Russia 10, has continued to be stricken from air and land by both Moscow and Damascus. No significant change for the situation in Idlib can be discerned on the horizon.
Any further outcome on Idlib, in addition to what Erdoğan has already gained on August 27 in Moscow, would come as a surprise. At most, certain extra adjustments to security measures could be undertaken. Of one which would be such the deployment of a Russian police force to serve as a “shield” around observation point number 9 which has remained under siege in the town of Murak. The reinforcement of Turkey's observation points would also be approved. It appears like the setting up of extra observation points would be overlooked.
This seeming flexibility is undoubtefully misleading. Turkey will not be told to retreat immediately. Instead, the operation aimed at opening the M5 and M4 highways is likely to prevail.
According to the agreement reached between Erdoğan and Putin in Sochi on September 17, 2018, these highways were meant to be opened to traffic last year. As the operation is still ongoing, Erdoğan is left with no cards to play. In other words, in Idlib, the curtain is gloomily coming down on us. The only thing these summits can truly affect is the timing of this inevitable affair.
That being said, the announcement of the constitutional committee that had yet not been formed in the 13th meeting, was formed this time. This success is regarded as one of the summit's significant achievements.
Moreover, the crisis revolving around which parties are to be included in the constitutional committee was overcome. Yet technical disagreements persist on how often and for how long the meetings should be held.
Turkey presents the announcement of this committe as an achievement veiling its dismal failure in Syria. Though with this slight relief, Turkey can act more harmoniously with Russia in Idlib.
Meanwhile, in northeastern Syria, Putin is scowling at the prospect of a Turkish-American joint operation mechanism that could spur him to try and lure Turkey into its “secure zone” option.
In recent times, Erdoğan has openly complained about the situation, stating that he was “seeking new opportunities given the 32-kilometer deep security zone target has not been met.” This provides Putin with the opportunity to beckon Erdogan into the Russian-devised plan.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared - out of the blue - that “the war in Syria is over”. What this shows is that, rather than the war being over, Russians are confident Turkey will not readily return to the American-led strategy.
The US regards Turkey's military presence in the west of the Euphrates river as an impediment to the Syrian state's recovery and as dimishing Russia's chances of achieving an easy victory. The US has now opened an office in Urfa, a city in Turkey's southeast, thanks to the safe zone agreement. Such a move contradicts the Turkish government's official discourse of opposition against American presence in Syria. What irks Ankara is not American presence in itself but Washington's particular preferences in the field.
For all the fiery rhetoric, Erdoğan is not opting for the immediate withdrawal of the US. Instead, Turkey would like to the US to remain in Syria and open a "safe" intervention channel for it. Beneath the idea to build TOKİ (Turkey's Housing Development Agency) houses in Syria, there is in fact a demand for the US to serve as an "air shield".
Still, while Washington has established a partnership excluding Turkish control in Northern Syria, they have brought about results that are contrary to Ankara's wishes. In particular, the US has made the YPG an interlocutor for Turkey and have put an end to its operations. Besides, the American military now has a Turkey office.
This is the reason why those that had pushed Erdoğan to enter Syria are now fuming. Erdoğan himself is discontented with the plan and regards it as a US strategy to design a safe zone for the YPG. On that account, it comes as no suprise that Putin would come up with such an enticing proposal.
Putin could just as well say: “If it is a safe zone you want, you can undertake responsibility for the 5-kilometer zone in coordination with the Syrian state based on the Adana Agreement of 1998." In fact, when Erdoğan suggested the Adana Accord could serve as the legal pillar for military presence in Syria, Putin latched onto the argument.
The establishment of a 5-kilometer band safe zone would reduce Putin's workload. Not only would this shrink the coverage area of the so-called Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations but Idlib would largely be under control while the remaining jihadists would be pushed toward the Turkish border, the task of dealing with them thereby befalling Ankara. Turkey would be granted the opportunity to curb the flow of refugees, which in turn would pave the way for a peace deal between Damascus and Ankara.
In order to kick the US out of the game, Putin may also seek to extend the safe zone to the east of Euphrates. But given the US's current position, this possibility can wait.
In any case, Russia will continue to use Turkey's position to its advantage. While the transatlantic partners are drawing up disaster scenarios, Moscow has brought in the S-400 defense system, regardless of NATO - thanks to Erdoğan. Those Americans that are attempting to rein in Turkey through the carrot and stick tactic maintain Turkey opted for that route due to the mistakes of the Obama administration and if Turkey can at least lock up the Russian system and not use it, the situation can be resolved with limited sanctions. Such a line of reasoning leads one to think they have room for maneuver. Yet, the second shipment of the S-400s has been completed and will be activated on April 2020.
Russia will take great advantage of the situation until it adds SU-35s and SU-57s to the S-400s. On the other hand, NATO is wriggling and cannot digest Ankara's purchase of the S-400s. But there is little NATO can do. A German former employee at NATO told me “they cannot expel Turkey from NATO. There are geographic necessities. They cannot fill the geo-strategic gap Turkey's absence would create. And since Erdoğan is aware of this, he is cleverly playing with them.”
"Cleverly" is no less than a euphemism. There are more suitable words to describe the situation. This geo-strategic game involves resources beyond the limits of reason.
*This abridged article first appeared on GazeteDuvar on Monday, September 16, 2019.