Today’s meeting at the Russian resort town of Sochi between Presidents Putin and Erdoğan will likely determine the course of events in Syria. The meeting is taking place at the waning hours of what the American side of an agreement with Turkey calls a ceasefire and the Turkish side calls a pause. Mr. Putin is expected to lay out Russia’s positions concerning developments in Syria, as explained in detail by Duvar English columnist Aydın Selcen yesterday, since Turkey’s military intervention sanctioned by President Trump.
It is highly likely that Mr. Putin will object to a continuation of the operation even if the Turkish side is not fully satisfied with the pace of the withdrawal by Kurdish YPG forces. It is also expected that the Russian side will push for a return to the Adana Protocol signed between Turkey and Syria back in 1998. That agreement stipulates that the zone within which Turkey can operate against terrorist elements of the PKK is limited to 5 kilometers. Yet an immediate withdrawal by Turkey from the area already occupied between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain will not be on the agenda for the moment.
The fate of the enclave of Idlib should be a topic of discussion and Turkey’s presence to the east of the Euphrates river may be predicated on its withdrawal from that area so that the regime can re-occupy this part of the country as well. Similarly, the American administration will also want an extension to the cessation of hostilities, reminding the Turkish side that a different course of action may trigger sanctions by the administration and further incite Congress that has been itching to pass its own set of heavy sanctions against Turkey.
Curiously this near harmonization of the American and Russian stances has been downplayed or not mentioned at all by much of Western media. There was almost no reporting and much less any analysis of the fact, for instance, that almost immediately before the meeting between Vice President Pence and President Erdoğan, a Russian delegation was holding talks with their Turkish counterparts in the same building.
Led by the Russian special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian team met with İbrahim Kalın, presidential spokesperson and the de facto national security advisor to the Turkish President. It would be odd indeed if the previous talks had no bearing on the succeeding ones particularly in light of the fact that lines of communication between the Russians and the Americans were open and functioned quite well during the withdrawal of American troops form northeast Syria, and their replacement by regime forces.
This seeming Russian and American cooperation, if not collusion, received short shrift in the coverage of the events as attention was concentrated rightly on the humanitarian aspects of the operation, particularly the violations of the laws and conventions of war by Turkey’s proxy, the Syrian National Army that includes Jihadist elements.
For American commentators there was the additional onus or embarrassment of “betraying the Kurds” by their President who fought against the Islamic State. They were the decisive factor in IS’ defeat and expulsion from cities and areas that it held and administered. Naturally, the fate of the war against IS, whose members were released or escaped from prison and now are at large looms large on the future agenda. IS militants had already begun to engage in terrorist activities. The prospect of a repeat of terrorist actions similar to the ones in the organization’s heyday is on the minds of both Westerners and President Putin who warned a gathering of CIS foreign ministers of the threat IS fighters posed for all of them.
These details and others will be investigated further once the fog of war is lifted and more information will be available to reporters and others. Similarly, apart from Russia the ranking of the winners and losers will probably change as events unfold and new perspectives on what had transpired emerge. For instance, it is probable that Turkey’s intervention and the humanitarian crisis this generated significantly augmented the legitimacy of the PYD/YPG among the world’s publics. The fact that a President of the United States, even one like Trump, would speak directly on the phone with a leading figure of the YPG, Mazlum Kobane and therefore project an equivalence with the Turkish President was probably unfathomable only a short while ago. Such developments cannot have been anticipated or desired by Turkish authorities. The matrix of the debates concerning the intervention, the destruction of the Kurdish Rojava experiment, American retreat and Russian ascent will be shaped as much by the military and political developments on the ground as by such unanticipated occurrences.
As important as these developments and getting to the bottom of this story in all its dimensions obviously are, some attention will also have to be paid to the future of the relations between Turkey and its Western allies. So far, and actually for a long time by now, much of what passes as analysis concerning Turkey’s foreign policy and security considerations bear a heavy dose of emotionalism. This clamor goes beyond a sensitivity for the deterioration of Turkish democracy and the worsening record on human rights and the rule of law. The cries for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO are at best infantile.
On the Turkish side a rampant anti-Westernism obviously flares up such emotional reactions. Turkey alienates allies and positions herself on the wrong side of the ideal version of the Western Alliance. It is true that Turkey’s strategic Westernness had never been so vociferously questioned and debated both by the larger public and her rulers. On the other hand, the presence of another Turkey whose values, goals and aspirations remain Western and democratic, as demonstrated in the municipal elections of last March and June is there and cannot be discarded. The challenge for all, internally and among ally rulers and publics, would be to find ways, strategies and the language to keep that energy and the bonds alive.