2019-01-23

Russia wants to decide on a buffer zone in Syria collectively with Turkey


On Wednesday, January 23 presidents of Russia and Turkey held negotiations in Moscow. A whole range of complex issues were on the table. A year ago, Turkish troops launched an operation to clear the Syrian Afrin from armed Syrian Kurdish groups which are hostile to Ankara. Today, Turkish government is again on the verge of starting another border operation in Syria. The country's leadership has been devising plans to create a buffer zone along the eastern part of the Turkish-Syrian border in the hope of deepening cooperation with the United States. The calculation is simple: through dialogue with the United States, Turkey wants to balance its Syrian policy, which has recently given a lurch towards Russia. The agenda in the framework of Erdogan’s visit is the question of whether Russia, without pushing Turkey away, can keep its partner in the Syrian settlement within the framework of collective cooperation.

Toward the end of the outgoing year, the US President in a video message to the citizens announced the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Syria. Many responded to Trump’s statement with surprise, but not the Turkish leadership. For Turkey, as Erdogan tried to explain in his article to the New York Times, the withdrawal of 2,000 American soldiers from the territories controlled by Syrian Kurds is a great opportunity to solve problems that have long poisoned relations between Ankara and Washington.

It is not surprising that Turkey, forced to move in Syria in the shadow of Russian diplomatic initiatives, enthusiastically began to look for a suitable format for the resumption of a constructive dialogue with Americans. Representatives of the US military-political circles managed to cut the hopes of the Turkish authorities by all means trying to limit the potential of Turkey to determine the processes taking place at points that are critical for American interests in Syria.

Decision of the president on withdrawal of troops gradually became filled with a feasible content. Linking the withdrawal to political conditions, including security guarantees for the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which Ankara regards as one of the objectives of the military operation, has caused adjustments to the diplomatic line of conduct of the Turkish government. In addition, Turkey was forced to avoid making statements about how its relations with Damascus and Iran would be built after Washington cedes control over northern Syria to Ankara.

Against this background, as a compromise format for the future of the Turkish-American cooperation in the next few months, during which the withdrawal of troops is supposed to take place, the formation of a buffer zone with a depth of 32 km under the control of Turkey was indicated. Ankara declares that the military cross-border operation is, by and large, expedient, fully meets the existing challenges and is justified by the requirements of security.

Nevertheless, in the plans of Ankara to create the next pro-Turkish zone on the Syrian border, you can see a lot of white spots. First of all, Turkey does not provide a satisfactory explanation of what awaits the Syrian Kurds, who, moreover, do not intend with folded arms to observe the loss of the next territories of their self-proclaimed autonomy.

There is also no certainty regarding the nature of the cooperation between Washington and Ankara in the proposed buffer zone. Not only Russia, Iran, Damascus, but also the internal political allies of the Turkish government are against the emergence of a US-Turkish protectorate in Syria. According to the leader of the Turkish nationalists, who are part of Erdogan’s party in an informal coalition agreement, the cabinet’s attempt to cooperate with the United States in Syria could turn into the appearance of the next Kurdistan on Turkey’s borders.

Obviously, Turkish leadership, which seeks to establish unconditional control over the entire Syrian-Turkish border, does not have much room for diplomatic maneuvers. In such conditions, dialogue between Ankara and Moscow acquires special significance. Turkey will obviously try to convince Moscow that the strengthening of the Turkish presence in northern Syria will not threaten their joint initiative to resolve the Syrian conflict. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow should clarify the countries ’position regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Syria and the development of the situation on the ground in the future.

Over the past month, Russia has shown by actions that it intends to adhere to its line on the issue, namely, transferring all the liberated territories under the control of the Syrian government and solving security problems through dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. In this regard, news of the start of patrols by the Russian military police in the Manbij area and the visit of Syrian Kurds to Moscow should have sent a powerful signal to the Turkish side: Russia’s confidence in Turkey remains, but from now on all actions of the guarantor countries should be carried out within the framework of agreements reached with particular attention to respect for the sovereignty of Syria with the prerogative of the interests of the central government.

Obviously, Russia values ​​cooperation with Turkey. Even despite all the problems in Idlib, Turkey was able to prevent further clashes between the government and the opposition on this territory, allowing them to focus on political dialogue. A separate point can be noted the cessation of attacks of UAVs on Russian military installations. This happened after the strengthening of the role of Turkey in Idlib. Ankara’s positive contribution is also felt in the issue of the formation of two of the three lists of the constitutional commission, on whose work Moscow places great hopes.

The fact that the Turkish leadership is actively coordinating positions with the Russian side, even on the status of the territories of northern Syria, which until recently remained exclusively a subject of dialogue between Ankara and Washington, speaks about the evolution of the Astana mechanism for resolving the Syrian conflict.

Provided that the Turkish side can give tangible assurances that the proposed buffer zone does not turn into a US-Turkish protectorate over time, Moscow, following the spirit of cooperation, could approve the operation necessary for Turkey’s interests. At the same time, the parties must clearly define the physical parameters of the Turkish operation and determine the prospects for the political future of the territories within the framework of the political dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the government.

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