November 27, 2017
On November 11, 2017, Presidents Putin and Trump met on the margins of the APEC conference in Vietnam. The joint-statement issued after the meeting said that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that the ultimate political solution must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254. The statement further said that the two leaders also took note of President Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections as called for under UNSCR 2254.
In the absence of any capacity for conflict resolution on the part of regional countries, US-Russia cooperation has always been the key to ending the Syrian conflict. And, the major challenge on that path has been reconciling the strategic interests of the two, narrowing differences where possible, mindful of the gaps that will inevitably remain.
On November 20, President Vladimir Putin had talks with President Assad in Sochi. At the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Putin stated that the military operation against terrorists is nearing completion and the main task now is to launch the political process. He also said, “Mr. President, as you know, I will meet with my colleagues – the presidents of Turkey and Iran – here in Sochi the day after tomorrow. We have agreed to hold additional consultations with you during our meeting. Of course, the main subject on the agenda is a peaceful and lasting political settlement in Syria after the routing of the terrorists…” One may assume therefore that somehow President Assad was also a participant in the summit.
The future role of the Syrian leader has been a major issue since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. It still is the American view that a new and stable Syria will ultimately require new leadership in Damascus and his departure from the scene. Nonetheless, Washington now says that this must occur as part of a political process that allows the entirety of the Syrian people, including the millions displaced by the conflict, to determine their future free from threat, intimidation, and all foreign interference, and ultimately through UN-supervised and organized parliamentary and presidential elections. In other words, Assad’s departure is no longer the precondition it used to be.
As the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey gathered in Sochi, “the so-called Riyadh opposition group”, to use President Putin’s very words, held a meeting in Saudi Arabia which concluded last Friday. Reportedly, participants stressed that “it is essential to ensure the implementation of the transitional process in a way that ensures the safety of everyone in an atmosphere of security, stability and calm. This cannot be achieved without the departure of Bashar al-Assad and his clique as well as the regime of repression and tyranny at the start of the transitional period.”
The joint statement issued at the end of the Sochi summit (*) said that the “Astana format” and its achievements have become an effective instrument for contributing to peace and stability in Syria and that the three leaders agreed to assist the Syrians in restoring unity of the country, and achieving а political solution of the crisis through an inclusive, free, fair and transparent Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process.
What are the conclusions to be drawn from developments of the past two weeks?
First, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been a game changer.
Second, through its military intervention Russia has become the leading actor in the Syrian conflict. But, the role comes with challenges.
Third, Russia has to walk a fine line in Syria, balancing its regional interests with its desire to open a new page in its relations with the Trump administration. Russia will also do its best to keep Iran and Turkey on board the Astana process by trying to address their concerns.
Fourth, the three countries appear determined to achieve as much as possible under the “Astana process” before turning Syria’s political transition over to the “Geneva process”.
And fifth, in view of what it calls Iran’s subversive activities across the Middle East, Washington is likely to stay in Iraq and Syria even after ISIL’s defeat. As the latest Sinai massacre shows, while it has lost much territory in Iraq and Syria, the war against ISIS will have to continue. US officials have reportedly said last week that they plan to maintain a troop presence in northern Syria where they have trained and assisted the SDF (which also include the PYD/YPG) against the Islamic State and establish new local governance, apart from the Assad government, in those areas.
The following passage form Sochi statement was no doubt a response to such speculation: “The Heads of state reaffirmed their strong commitment to sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of The Syrian Arab Republic and emphasized that under no circumstances the creation of the above-mentioned de-escalation areas and at political initiative to solve the Syrian crisis undermine the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of The Syrian Arab Republic.”
As for Turkey, every passing day brings further evidence that Ankara’s foray into the Syrian conflict was a strategic mistake. If today’s Turkey is not what it was decade ago, this is due to the disastrous combination of our deviating from the democratic path and our involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The Sochi statement said that “The Presidents called on the representatives of The Government of The Syrian Arab Republic and the opposition that are committed to the sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and non-fractional character of the Syrian state to participate constructively in the Syrian national dialogue congress in Sochi in near future. They agreed to actively contribute to the success of the Congress. Iran, Russia and Turkey will consult and agree on participants of the Congress.”
This wording is primarily designed to allay Turkey’s concerns regarding PYD/YPG’s participation in the “Syrian national dialogue congress”. But this may not be the end of the story.
Last week’s final development of relevance in this connection was President Trump’s phone call with President Erdogan on November 24. Readout of the call immediately issued by Mr. Erdogan’s press office notably said that the two “leaders highlighted the importance of strengthening the Turkey-U.S. relations and agreed on joint fight against all terrorist organizations, including DEASH, PKK, FETO and similar groups.” The White House readout of the same call said that President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to US’ partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and that the US is progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return.
The two statements could have been interpreted as an intention on the part of Washington to scale down its military supplies to the PYD/YPG. However, the same evening, the media reported Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu as saying, “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions, and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago.”
It seems that disclosure has caused consternation in Washington. The White House readout of the Trump-Erdogan call is available on the website of the US Embassy in Ankara, but for some reason which could be technical as well, it is not on the website of the White House.
Moscow understandably wishes Turkey’s feuds with the West to continue, making it increasingly dependent on Moscow. And, Ankara wishes to relaunch economic cooperation with Russia and ensure its support in Syria. The purchase of S-400 missile systems appears more like another move to achieve this rather than a well-thought decision to meet Turkey’s defense needs. In brief, the downing of the Russian military plane on the killing of the Russian Ambassador in Ankara are not yet history and continue to exact a high price.
The relationship between Ankara and Washington is still “the uneasy alliance”. Despite continuing disarray in Washington, Ankara needs America’s broad support on a wide range of political/diplomatic/economic issues as well as making sure that Syria remains in one piece. Washington wants Ankara to observe certain limits in its cooperation with Moscow, remain committed to NATO and the anti-ISIS coalition. And, Washington no doubt wishes to see Ankara joining the regional coalition it is trying to build against Tehran. Within the limits of reason, enough can be accomplished through diplomacy, Turkey’s relations with Tehran being a more difficult issue. Because, after Iraq and Syria, no Turkish Government would want problems with a third neighbor. The first step, however, has to be the rebuilding of mutual confidence and the reducing unpredictability in the relationship. And, although President Trump does not seem to care much about promoting democracy, beyond a shadow of doubt, returning to the democratic path will vastly improve Turkey’s standing in the region and beyond.