2019-01-31

From Astana XII to Adana II: what needs to be done to revive the Syrian-Turkish dialogue


Turkey does not need permits to conduct operations against terrorists, Erdogan says these days, meanwhile Turkish officials are actively negotiating with the United States and Russia on the parameters of the border security zone envisaged by Ankara in northern Syria. Obviously, Russia recognizes Turkey’s concerns regarding the Syrian Kurdish armed groups. The goal of Moscow today is to tame and redirect Ankara’s ambitions towards the restoration of dialogue with official Damascus. Putin’s on January 23 meeting with Erdogan stated that Adana Agreement of 1998 could be the basis for resumption of interstate cooperation on security issues. Russia is thus required to contribute to reviving the spirit of trust in the region.

Today, no one in Turkey doubts the positive contribution of the Adana Agreement to the security of the region. The terms negotiated in October 1998 obliged Damascus to abandon the support of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (aka PKK). The Syrian authorities recognized the PKK as a terrorist entity, promising by all means to help stop its activities in Syria and neighboring Lebanon. Under pressure from the Turkish authorities, Syria expelled the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan who was later apprehended by Turkish intelligence service. Bilateral cooperation continued up until mid-2011s, when Turkey, with the beginning of the civil war in Syria, began openly supporting opposition forces in attempts to topple Assad. Despite an almost seven-year pause in bilateral cooperation, the Turkish government today recognizes the urgent need to restore work within the framework of the Adana Agreement.

However, the Turkish officials continue to criticize the Syrian authorities for non-compliance with the agreement's terms. Syria tries to carry on negotiations with the Syrian Kurds led by the Party of Democratic Union, which Ankara considers an intrinsic part of the PKK. According to Turkey, the Syrian authorities not only abstain from dully performing taken under the Adana Agreements to fight the Kurdish separatist organization, but, moreover, openly assist it, as it was in February last year in the Syrian Afrin region during the Turkish military operation “Olive branch".

The restoration of dialogue is also hampered by the position of the Turkish leadership in regards to the legitimacy of the current Syrian president. Ankara insists that any talks of cooperation should be carried out with the legitimate Syrian government, which can be formed only after political reforms are carried out and elections are held in the country under the supervision of the international community. Interestingly, the Turkish representatives at the same time avoid mentioning ongoing contacts that two countries are already cooperating in the field of fight against terrorism.

Turkey’s concerns also caused by the political future of the border areas, which must return to the control of the Syrian government if the Adana Agreement is given a second chance. Ankara’s position is affected by deep distrust of Assad: after 7 years of confrontation with neighboring Turkey, the Syrian president, guided by the tactics of his father Hafez Assad, can once again start supporting the PKK as a leverage against the Turkish government. A separate issue in Turkey's calculations deals with the possible resumption of repressions against refugees returning to northern Syria.

It is interesting that against this background of the coherent position of the Turkish government, which declares the importance of the Adana Agreements, but refuses to recognize the Syrian government as a partner, Turkish opposition proposes its own options for normalizing the Syrian policy of Turkey. For example, Republican People’s Party, among other things, calls for the immediate start of a dialogue with Damascus, implementation of agreements with Russia and Iran in Idlib and maintenance of a dialogue between the Syrian authorities and Kurdish political parties (apparently implying that it is in the interests of Ankara to support any negotiations between Syrian Kurds not affiliated with PYD and Damascus in order to minimize political influence of the PKK).

At the same time, political ally of the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Devlet Bahçeli and his far-right Nationalist Movement Party, although urging to refrain from dialogue with Assad, still hint that any agreements with the Syrian government in the circumstances of extreme need should take into account the special demands of Turkey and recognize Turkey's influence gained in recent years in the Syrian political process.

One can assume in this light that Bahçeli and his party are forced to follow the official line in the Syrian issue in order not to harm the “People’s Alliance” created with Erdoğan’s ruling establishment. After all, domestic political benefits derived from membership in a pro-government alliance keep nationalists from taking a position on the Syrian conflict that is too different from the official stance of Ankara.

One should also keep in mind that under the influence of failures in Syria, Turkey’s Middle East policy is undergoing major changes. First, there is a collision of two mutually exclusive processes inside Turkey's foreign policy decision-making process. The politicization of purely non-political areas of bilateral relations with the countries of the neighboring region, when economic, cultural and diplomatic ties are sacrificed for the sake of political ambitions and whims of the ruling elites, is replaced by a process of further securitization, when Ankara approaches bilateral cooperation mainly from a position of acute need to ensure national security.

Secondly, Turkey’s approach to solving problems in the region is increasingly approached from a position of strength and unilateral actions. If, in the matter of coordinating actions and coordinating the positions, Turkey managed to establish a dialogue with Iran and Russia, it had to be content with at least a cold silence in relations with Arab countries, especially with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The problem of the partial isolation of Ankara in the region is complicated by the difficult relations of the country with its Western military-political partners.

Not surprisingly, the above-mentioned state of affairs in Turkish foreign policy forced the government to actively support the Astana process, which began in January 2017. The emphasis on stabilizing the armed conflict through consultations of the most important stakeholders, attention to the provisions of the UN Security Council resolutions, as well as attempts to start the political process - all this allowed Turkey to ponder over its true national interests, assess its potential within new political conditions in the region and find new opportunities in Syria.

It is expected that at the upcoming meeting on February 14, the Astana Troika will discuss the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria. Until now, the United States diplomats, in official contacts with its Turkish colleagues, advocated a formula for resolving the security problem of the border area that is not entirely acceptable to Ankara. The American side is ready to recognize the right of Turkey to conduct operations in northern Syria in the outback of 32 km, while Ankara should provide guarantees that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party will not be the goal of the Turkish military. But this precondition is not only unacceptable for Turkey, but also makes the plans of the limited military operation meaningless, and the potential casualties among Turkish servicemen pointless, since it would not contribute to the elimination of the terrorist threat.

The clinch between Washington and Ankara in regards to the situation in northern Syria provides a unique opportunity for Russian diplomacy to assist the ongoing attempts to resume official relations between Turkey and Syria. First of all, Russia needs to influence the process of making foreign policy decisions in Turkey: Erdogan’s ambitions to create a security zone can be leveled by Erdogan’s pragmatism. The ruling elites and their political allies within the political establishment can together put pressure on the president if, in general, the cooperation mechanism with Syria will be able to serve Turkey’s national interests in the sense in which they are represented by the Turkish nationalist and patriotic circles within academia, military and bureaucracy.

In consultation with the Turkish side on the issue of restoring dialogue with Damascus, attention should be paid to the regional nature of cooperation, in which the problems of the region are to be solved only by the countries of the region itself. The anti-imperialist connotation of the initiative will fit well with the growth of anti-American sentiment in Turkey and the experience of anti-terrorism cooperation with Iraq and Iran.

On the other hand, the statements of the Syrian side regarding the recognition of Hatay province as a sovereign territory of Turkey, recognition of Turkey as a priority partner in the matter of the early return of Syrian refugees and the restoration of cross-border trade - all this can also contribute to attempts to bring the Turkish leadership out of a state of hesitation and promote resumption of bilateral dialogue.

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