Undoubtedly, the memorandum that came out of a 6-hour meeting between Turkish President President Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin was a watershed in the Syrian crisis.
From Ankara’s perspective, this agreement effectively prevents the a Kurdish-led autonomous political entity from coming to fruition. From Moscow’s perspective, the memorandum ensures the comeback of the Syrian state to the region.
Following a green light from U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey launched its “Peace Spring Operation” and entered Tell Abyad (Gire Spî) and Ras’al Ayn. The Syrian army then deployed to certain regions after an agreement was brokered between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Upon pressure from the U.S., the SDF withdrew from battle zones after a 120-hour ceasefire.
Later still, compelled by Congress, Trump threatened to usher in sanctions against Turkey were it to break the ceasefire and pursue its military operation. At a deadlock, Erdoğan was left with no other choice than calling on Putin to determine the future of its military foray.
The memorandum does provide some relief for Erdoğan who seeks to reach the target of his operation whilst being threatened by U.S. sanctions and being up against Russia and Iran. Yet it mostly clears the way for Russia’s strategy on the Syrian stage.
Let us now consider each point of the memorandum:
Point 1. “The two sides reiterate 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 core the Astana Agreement. Still, Russia and Iran considered Turkey’s actions as threatening to Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Point 2. They emphasize their determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations and to disrupt separatist agendas in the Syrian territory.
This point mostly reflects Turkey’s discourse and concerns. Though Russia criticizes the U.S. for drawing Kurds into a ‘separatist agenda’, it never refers to the YPG or PYG as terrorist organizations. Instead, Putin emphasized during the joint press conference that the Kurdish issue must be resolved through negotiations in Damascus – against Turkey’s insistent opposition. On the other hand, groups which are widely regarded as terrorist organizations are treated by Erdoğan as Syria’s “National Army”. This point does imply such views have changed.
Point 3. In this framework, the established status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area covering Tel Abyad and Ras Al Ayn with a depth of 32 km will be preserved.
Turkey’s continued control over Tall Abyad and Ras’ul Ayn for an undefined period of time is Erdoğan’s greatest gain for now. Using the military presence there as an anchor, he will be able to dictate his conditions.
During the “Peace Spring” operation, Russia arranged an agreement between the Syrian state and the SDF while ensuring the Syrian army stood clear of these two areas, thereby preventing clashes with Turkey. This allowed for the status quo to be preserved. Yet it has been speculated that Russia urged Turkey to take a step back west of the Euphrates river. And while the issue of Idlib was discussed, the details of the exchanges were not shared with the press. The developments west of the Euphrates are likely to progress soon. A visit on Monday by the Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad to Syrian troops on the outskirsts of Idlib served as a signal flare.
Point 4. Both sides reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement. The Russian Federation will facilitate the implementation of the Adana Agreement in the current circumstances.
This is one of the most crucial points. Russia has long sought to use the Adana Agreement as a base to smoothen ties between Syria and Turkey. Ultimately, this agreement requires Erdoğan to coordinate himself with the Syrian government, which he calls illegitimate. In this setting, the next step would have him shake hands with Damascus. It is thus the first time Russia has been able to turn its wish into a written commitment. Still, the feasibility of the agreement remains contentious. The agreement – which has yet to gain the status of an ‘international agreement’ on both sides – features no provision stating Turkey can cross the border up to 5 or 10 kilometers into Syria. Rumor has it this is provided for in the agreement’s ‘secret articles’ – but the reality is unclear. Damascus has thus far refrained from mentioning the agreement. Moreover, a mutual security agreement signed in 2010 and approved by the parliament in 2011 renders the Adana Agreement redundant. Shunning such technical issues, Russia is effectively using this agreement to restrain Ankara’s actions and normalize its relations with Damascus.
Point 5. Starting from 12.00 noon of October 23, 2019, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of the Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons to the depth of 30 km 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 km, except for the city of Qamishli.
With this point, Turkey abandons its engagement to keep the Syrian army away from its borders. Instead, Ankara will comply with the Russian-Iran road map which involves the Syrian army taking over control of territory along its borders. Yet displacing the YPG beyond 30 km is not easy target. If the YPG/SDF had already agreed to leave control of borders to the Syrian army, they did not agree to withdraw 32 km in areas other than Tall Abyad and Ras’ul Ayn. How Russia will realize this commitment is an important matter. According to the U.S.’ Syria envoy James Jeffrey, Moscow will fail to reach that objective. Integrating the YPG/SDF into the Syrian army as a “5th army corps” is another plan on the agenda. If that plan goes ahead, Turkey will have to live with the YPG prevailing in the area under different uniforms. How this matter was negotiated remains unclear. If the YPG is added to the Syrian army, it will be the Syrian army that the joint Turkish-Russian patrol will deal with. Under such an arrangement, the patrol would lose its symbolic significance.
Point 6. All YPG elements and their weapons will be removed from Manbij and Tal Rifat.
Prior to the agreement, Russian military police and the Syrian army had already reverted to Manbij, which is located east of the river Euphrates. The Manbij Military Council had already been ensuring the city’s security. As for Tal Rifat, it had previously served as a bargaining chip against Russia, conditions on the city are now on text. Tal Rifat has been the corridor between Afrin and Manbij. When the YPG lost Afrin in 2018, it had retreated to the area surrounding Tal Rifat. If the YPG now withdraws from there too, it will hamper its efforts to return to Afrin. Yet if the YPG blends into the Syrian army, the Kurds could settle in Afrin and Idlib under a new status. This an outcome Erdoğan never wants to see.
Point 7. Both sides will take necessary measures to prevent infiltrations by terrorist elements.
The lines Kurds had held since 2012 were the safest areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. If conflict is out of the picture, there will be no more need to deal with border-related issues.
Point 8. Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.
Erdoğan’s “safe zone” map is invalidated by the memorandum. Ankara had planned to establish a safe zone, 32 km to 480 km in size, then move below the M-4 highway and settle 2 million refugees in these areas. Since this envisioned map can not longer be achieved, plans regarding the resettlement of refugees have become little less than wistful thinking.
The only option allowing for the return of refugees would be an end to the war and the ensuring of stability through the reaching of a political solution. Yet there is no way Turkey can come close to such stability whilst sponsoring and supporting a host of looting jihadist groups that bear an uncanny resemblance to Al-Qaeda.
Point 9. A joint monitoring and verification mechanism will be established to oversee and coordinate the implementation of this memorandum.
If coordination between Russian and Turkey succeeds, the U.S.- who has surprised everyone with its conflicting decisions – could well be left even more isolated. The setting up of a Turkish-American joint operation center had triggered much anxiety on the part of Russia and Iran. It appears the tables have turned.
Point 10. The two sides will continue to work to find a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict within the Astana Mechanism and will support the activity of the Constitutional Committee.
Until now, Turkey had blocked any representative of North and East Syria Democratic Autonomous Government from joining the Constitutional Committee. This caused a void which guaranteed the failure of the committee. While Turkey is not expected to give in on this, a parallel process seems inevitable under insistence from Russia. Such a process would bring the Kurds to the negotiation table with Damascus. Erdoğan can do his utmost to sabotage this.
How will the Kurds react to these points? After the press conference they opted to evaluate the text first rather than promptly commenting on it. Whilst negotiating with Turkey, did the Russian discuss the role Kurds? How will the process affect the Kurdish-run civil governments of town centers and local military councils? Such institutions are a legacy of the Kurdish autonomy project. The intention to make Qamishli an exception portends flexibility on the matter.
The memorandum’s results undoubtedly depend on the SDF’s reaction. To what extent will the Kurds pursue their cooperation with the Syria government? And will the U.S. change its mind again? American officials insist they will continue working with the SDF. The Kurds are in favor of working both with the U.S. and the Syrian government.
After having turned the Kurds toward Damascus by using Turkey’s intervention, Russia might now focus on Idlib and invite Turkey to comply with the first point of the memorandum. In other words, Russia could then ask Turkey to withdraw.