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Syria: A Critical Moment for Erdogan

Following the telephone conversation between the US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, new CIA director Mike Pompeo took off to Ankara February 9 for high level talks with Turkish officials. The mission of Pompeo was to test the extent to which Turkey is ready to coordinate with the US in Syria and in the Middle East in general, in addition to explain US objectives in the region for the coming few years. While Pompeo was almost touching down at a Turkish airport, Russia’s bombers raided a position manned by Turkish troops close to Al Bab, Syria and killed 3 Turkish soldiers.

It is not clear yet if the two developments are connected. But while the Kremlin issued a dryly phrased statement saying that bombing the site was cleared with Turkish forces before the raid, Turkish officials rejected Moscow’s argument. “The probability of its being an accident is zero percent. there is no mention of an apology or reparations in the Kremlin’s statement regarding the incident. This can be seen as an intimidation.” said Sait Yilmaz, a Turkish security and foreign policy analyst. Moreover, Turkey’s military has denied that it mistakenly told Russian warplanes to bomb a building in Syria on Thursday, killing three Turkish soldiers.  

Another Turkish expert, Hussien Bagci, said he is not sure the incident was not intentional. “It may be an accident, but it may also be intentional”, he said. However, Ankara and Moscow have maintained calm in their relations and restrained their public exchange in an apparent move to prevent tension again after the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military in 2015. 

The dynamics surrounding Erdogan, particularly-but not only- in Syria, are very complex one. There are mounting pressures on the Turkish President to accept announcing a Kurdish entity on his south borders. Moscow’s position on this issue is clear in the draft of Syria’s constitution it submitted to Damascus and to Syria’s opposition few weeks ago. The draft calls for “cultural autonomy” for Syria’s Kurds, no more.

While the phrasing may have been restrained by Assad’s rejection of the idea of autonomous regions in Syria, it ultimately does not promise the Kurds with independence as the Turks believe the US did. Some Turkish officials went as far as saying that the Trump administration proposal of a no-fly-zone disguises a plan to build this Kurdish autonomous region on the ground in order to suddenly announce its birth later.

Even the prospects of an American-Russian joint plan, related to Syria, worries the Turks. The two powers will undoubtedly decide what will happen for the Kurds in the absence of Ankara. If they do, Erdogan will have nowhere to go to play one side against the other. Ankara insisted not to include the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party)-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the proposed UN sponsored talks slated to start in Geneva later this month. Instead, the moderate Kurdish National Council (KNC) will be present in the talks, albeit symbolically, as the KNC has little presence in northern Syria. The active Kurdish group in that region is the YPG which is PKK affiliated, hence it was rejected by the Turks.

Most probably, what Pompeo discussed in Ankara was on line with what Trump promised in the campaign trail. The US President said he will explore ways to get the Turks to work with the Kurds.  “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”, Trump said.

But Turkey says “Which Kurds?”. Ankara is working smoothly with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. It says that it does not oppose working with the Kurds on principle. But the PKK, for the Turks, is a redline. Ankara considers the group terrorist and chases it wherever it can.

And most probably Pompeo heard the Turkish case in details. But the CIA director was there not only to evaluate the limits to which Turkey can go in working with the Kurds, but also in fighting ISIL. Washington wants to explore Ankara’s readiness to cooperate in the expansive US plan to eradicate the terrorist organization and to calm down Middle East crises.

Naturally, Erdogan will try to place cooperation with the US in a context that serves his country’s national interests. Few days after Pompeo left Ankara, Erdogan hinted to his readiness to participate in liberating Raqqa from ISIL. “Al-Bab is now besieged from all fronts. Our forces entered the center. Our final target is to clean the region from Daesh. Daesh’s main center is not Al-Bab, but Raqqa. Once Raqqa is cleared, this region will be a terror-free area”, he said February 12.

However, the road to Raqqa may not be that easy for the Turkish forces. A good portion of the region between Al Bab and Raqqa is under the tight control of Kurdish and Assad forces. Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the US and the PKK affiliated YPG, are closer to Raqqa than the Turkish supported groups in the region.

Among all these scattered and conflicting forces and interests that fill the screen, there should be one comprehensive plan that moves things ahead, in relative harmony, and in the same direction: that of defeating ISIL and cleaning Syria of its presence.

Self-administrated regions in a decentralized Syria may indeed be a creative way to go. The Kurds will have their two regions as the Russians proposed, the Sunnis will have theirs as well, and the general condition for all parties is to guarantee that their areas are clear of any terrorist groups and that they preserve the integrity of Syria’s national soil as one unified country. Help will be provided by all parties to the participants on the ground while they engage in fighting ISIL and other terrorist-designated groups. International civilian assistance for those groups will also be provided to help them run their regions and build back essential civilian services like health care, education, electricity and water.

If each party got what they want, or at least part of it, there will be no reason for any to play the spoiler role. The Americans and Russians will help fighting ISIL, the Kurds will get an autonomous region, Damascus will not be threatened of a sudden collapse in state powers, and the Turks will make sure there will be no Kurdish independent entity ruled by the PKK on their southern borders.

So long as the deal is based on global norms of nonintervention in others affairs and disavowing all aspects of threatening behaviors or supporting terrorism, the proposed deal should be firm.

But is there any guarantee that the Kurdish region will not fall under the rule of the PKK? Unfortunately, there is none. However, controlling the border of Syria will be the responsibility of the central government in Damascus. This government has to commit to fighting any group, including the PKK, if it uses Syria’s territories to wage attacks against Turkey. Turkish forces will have the right to fight any terrorist organization threatening its security even across the borders. The US and Russia can provide sufficient guarantees that they will help Ankara securing its borders.

It all depends on a US-Russian joint agreement concerning Syria, which is currently being shaped, provided that Russia can deliver Iran and Assad’s approvals. If such an agreement is reached and Iran and Assad, nevertheless, decide to resist it by, for example, helping the PKK, or pushing the Shia militias to escalate, a new configuration would have been created in northern Syria.

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