Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s Syria project flounders

US-Russian rapprochement in Helsinki has put in question whether Turkey’s Erdogan will have any significant influence over what happens next in resolving the Syrian civil war, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid


Erdogan’s Syria project flounders
Erdogan’s Syria project flounders

In his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan briefly summed up how Russian-Turkish relations were “developing very quickly across the board — in the military, trade, cultural and tourism areas”. He then added: “On the other hand, we see that our forms of solidarity are causing envy in others.” The intended message is clear to all at home in Turkey or abroad who are sceptical about or opposed to closer Turkish-Russian ties: Ankara and Moscow share the political will to overcome all obstacles.

But despite such diplomatic niceties some crucial differences are emerging between Erdogan and Putin, to whom Erdogan has turned in order to compensate for the increasing coldness he is receiving in the West.

Observers in Turkey, especially in the opposition media, believe that Erdogan now finds himself in a predicament in Syria, where the Russians have the ultimate say. It is the type of dilemma that could send tremors through his newly founded presidential system, especially given how much he put at stake in his interventionist programme there.

It appears from numerous reports, which have been circulating rapidly since the recent summit between Trump and Putin in Helsinki, that Russian-US designed scenarios are in the works to implement a deal that would finally end the civil war in Syria. It is believed that the closing chapters in that war are to unfold in Idlib, to which Bashar Al-Assad has turned his attention following the rapid re-conquests in the south, in Daraa and Quneitra.

That spells trouble for Erdogan, who has been watching his influence in Syria dwindle and his neo-Ottoman ambitions dissipate with every successive victory of his arch-enemy Al-Assad. It came as little consolation that he was allowed to serve as guarantor for the de-escalation agreements in Aleppo and Ghouta before that, since he would have preferred entirely different outcomes and he had little say in the agreements to begin with.

Against that backdrop came a report of a desperate measure: a Turkish appeal to Moscow to hand Aleppo to Ankara for the purposes of reconstructing the northern Syrian city and paving the way for the return of three million Syrian refugees in Turkey and Europe. Yeni Safak, an ardently pro-Erdogan newspaper, held that Damascus had neither the wherewithal for reconstruction or the ability to ensure the safe return of refugees. According to the newspaper, the negotiations between Turkish and Russian delegations to transfer the administration of Aleppo governorate to Turkey are still ongoing. The report has been denied in Ankara.

Idlib is the only governorate that remains outside the Syrian regime’s control. It is controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham (formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra Front) and other militant opposition factions supported by Ankara. Erdogan, whose country has 12 military observation posts in Idlib, is worried. “Idlib is a red line. It is different from the other de-escalation zones in which the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies did not abide by the agreement,” he warned.

According to reports in Russian newspapers, the Turkish-supported forces have begun to build walls around certain parts of the northern Syrian province. The reports cite sources in Syria as saying that walls will encompass the whole of Idlib, preparatory to annexing those territories to Turkey or, at least, in order to protect them from the impending Syrian army operation to drive out the terrorists from there. As these reports appeared in Russian newspapers close to the Kremlin, they most likely reflect Moscow’s opposition to the Turkish scheme.

To make matters worse for Erdogan, another disaster looms from the direction of the US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria. It appears that the Russians are about to put their weight behind the Kurds in Syria, as well. It was certainly no coincidence, following the US-Russian rapprochement in Helsinki, that a delegation from the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Erdogan brands as “terrorist”, met with Syrian officials in Damascus last week in order to discuss ways to end the conflict in Syria and to preserve the autonomy of the Kurds in the north.

Nothing could be more guaranteed to strike terror in Erdogan’s heart. It would put paid to Ankara’s drive to strengthen its influence in northern Syria by imposing a form of Turkish mandate in portions of Syrian territory, linking them administratively to Turkey through identity cards and other such documents issued to the local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has announced plans for a summit in Istanbul with France, Germany and Russia (at the time of writing, neither Paris or Berlin have indicated whether they would attend). The stated purpose of the four-party summit is to discuss regional issues, including the Syrian question. Although no further details have been given, the details may well be extraneous since for Erdogan, the summit is really a last-ditch attempt to salvage some of his dwindling influence south of the Anatolian border where his room for manoeuvrability has shrunk in tandem with de-escalations, the victories of his adversary in Damascus whom he had planned to unseat, and unfolding scenarios co-sponsored by Moscow and Washington which, for the most part at least, leave Ankara out.

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