Operation Syria: Erdoğan’s Victory, Putin’s Triumph
Mariano Giustino 13 November 2019

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was able to convince the president of the United States, Donald Trump as well as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state along the Syrian border with Turkey. Putin, in turn, was able to convince Erdoğan to cooperate with the Syrian regime and perhaps directly with Bashar Al-Assad.

It can be reasonably assumed that all this forms the basis for the agreement reached between Turkey and Russia on the 22nd of October in Sochi. It therefore represents a second green light for the creation of a buffer zone in northeastern Syria. The first go-ahead was given by Trump when he permitted a Turkish military incursion against the Kurdish-Syrian militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that had acted as infantry for the US military in their fight against the Islamic State in eastern Syria. For Ankara, however, they were considered a terrorist organization that threatens Turkey’s national security as they are considered a Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The agreement also assisted Erdoğan in gaining legitimacy from Moscow for his October 9 maneuver dubbed Operation Peace Spring.


Enshrining Turkish foreign policy

In fact, Article 3 of the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) published at the end of discussions between Erdoğan and Putin takes into account the “status quo” as regards the Syrian territory that Turkey brought under its control with its military offensive. This incorporates an area of 120 kilometers along the border, 32 kilometers deep between the village of Tell Abyad in the west and the city Ras al-Ain in the east. A Turkish military presence therefore, will remain in that region East of the Euphrates where Erdoğan intends to relocate at least 1 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees that are currently residing in Turkey.

In addition, article 6 of the Memorandum states that the YPG should retreat to 32 kilometers from the Turkish border within 150 hours from the signing of the MoU and that Turco-Russian patrols should be launched in an area along the border and up to 10 kilometers deep, though this should remain outside of the buffer zone already under Turkish control, with the exception of Qamishli, near the Iraqi border, which is already under Syrian control.

All these developments represent victories for Ankara. Erdoğan’s biggest strategic success however was to quash the Kurdish aspirations of auto-determination in a region of Syria that is larger than Lebanon and rich in natural resources. Until recently the YPG, with the help of US forces, seemed to be well-positioned to consolidate their control over these lands. This situation has now substantially changed.

The Turkish president has therefore reached the historical objective of impeding the creation of a state or any other form of autonomous governance for the Kurdish people along its south-eastern border. It is an objective that he has been striving for at length, an objective that is considered irreplaceable, an objective of all previous governments, an indispensable objective for the territorial integrity and survival of the Turkish Republic since its establishment in 1923. A risky game played with both the Russians and the Americans, but Erdoğan was able to emerge victorious.  The tenacity of Turkish diplomacy, that in recent years made unscrupulous use of military force, risking strong sanctions as well as reactions from its western allies, seems to have worked.


The place of Damascus

We can therefore say that Putin assisted Erdoğan in obtaining his aims though not because he cared particularly for Turkey’s wellbeing, but to reach the important aim of gaining the Turkish president’s promise to help the advance of the process of a political solution for the Syrian conflict in cooperation with the regime in Damascus.

This point is expressly underlined in the MoU that refers explicitly to the Adana Accord signed by Turkey and Syria in 1998, which pressured the Syrian government to extradite Öcalan, leader of the PKK, leading to his arrest in Kenya in 1999. This agreement regulated border security between Turkey and Syria until the start of the revolution in 2011. It was originally stipulated as a backstop against the PKK and aimed at securing the border against terrorist organizations in Syria that presented a threat to Turkey, particularly aimed at those with ties to Kurdish separatism. The Syrian government, which at the time, was headed by Hafiz al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, committed itself to stop giving asylum to members of the PKK and its leaders. This protocol also brought territorial disputes to an end and normalized relations between the two countries.

The reactivation of the Adana Accord would therefore imply Turkish cooperation with the Assad regime in Syria. It is known, however, that Ankara and Damascus were profoundly divided in the Syrian crisis. Erdoğan’s objectives for his involvement in Syria were completely at odds with those of the regime. According to the Turkish president’s plan, Al-Assad should have stepped down and the Ba’ath Party’s rule should have been substituted with that of a new government, preferably supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps without going as far as befriending Al-Assad, Erdoğan has now given his word to Putin that he will collaborate with the regime in Damascus.

If this accord were to be reintroduced it would be a big step forward towards the normalization of the relationship between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Erdoğan’s government, notwithstanding their profound disdain for each other. Erdoğan has demonstrated himself open to resuscitating the Accord, and after having obtained gains from Moscow, it is logical to presume that it will not be long before he will accept high-level talks with the Syrian government.

Remaining firmly on his objectives and ignoring all international protests – as well as those coming from the Arab world, Iran included – Erdoğan has thus ensured what he has promised the Turkish public for months. All the parties represented in the Turkish parliament, as well as some of Erdoğan’s fiercest detractors, with the exception of the People’s Democratic Party (HPD), a left-wing libertarian party, which sympathizes with the Kurdish cause, recognize the success of being able to navigate between the Russians and the Americans to reach pre-established objectives in Syria, even if the cost has been the deterioration of relations with the European Union that had already reached a breaking point after protests all over the Continent against the Turkish military operation.


And the (chief) winner is…

But if Erdogan has gained a victory, Putin has triumphed. The Syrian crisis has now been transformed in a ticket for Moscow to return to the Middle East after numerous decades and now Putin is working to mediate on two levels. The first is for the opening of a line of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus and the second is to open a similar dialogue between Damascus and the Kurds in order to reach a solution that would accommodate these three key players.

The Russian president has been looking, for some time, to detach the Turks and the Kurds from American influence and to render US presence in Syria obsolete. Keeping the US out of Syria has thus been able to bring together Russia, Iran, Damascus, and Turkey.

Putin has recognized the “right of Turkey to guarantee its security” but this position has been conditioned by a number of factors, first of which is respect for the territorial integrity of Syria. This, for the Russian president, is a clear starting point. However, a further infrangible principle for Russia is that which sustains that “all foreign troops present illegally in the country – therefore, those that have not been invited by Damascus – must leave the country”. In political terms, this means that Russia expects that Turkey satisfies its “requirements for security” but once these have been achieved, will abandon all areas of Syria that it has brought under its control. This is as valid for the United States as it is for Turkey.

It seems obvious that the Russian approach to the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria follows the theory that Putin believes necessary for the Middle East, that of “all things to all men”. Until now, this philosophy has borne fruit and Moscow will continue to pursue it.


The Kurdish dilemma

With its offensive, Ankara has therefore thrown off the military and political equilibriums in the Syrian theatre and this has reinforced its influence in the discussions in Geneva that were restarted on the 30th of October with the opening of proceedings of the constitutional commission. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is made up of the Kurdish militias of the YPG as well as its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) are not present among the 150 groups represented in Geneva for the new Syrian constitution. This means that the Kurdish parties that fought heroically to defeat ISIS are excluded from the constitutional committee above all to accommodate the will of the Turks.

Between Damascus and the Kurds, there is currently a “military negotiation” which should be followed by political discussions in order to guarantee some fundamental rights for the latter. Still, a first constitutional draft proposed by Russia in 2017 included the necessity to recognize the cultural autonomy of the Kurds through Turkey strongly opposed the proposal. The question of the Kurds’ status could yet re-emerge.

Many observers believe that Russia will not stop playing the Kurdish card. Moscow maintained relations with the Democratic Union Party (DYP) and its armed branch, the YPG, for years and is now mediating between the group and Damascus. Sources near the Russian administration sustain that Moscow intends to concede cantonal privileges to the Syrian-Kurds in the new constitution.

Putin already confirmed this idea during the Sochi press conference, after his discussions with Erdoğan, saying “A dialogue should start between the Syrian government and the Kurds in the region. The rights of the Kurds, that make up part of the multi-ethnic Syrian population, can only be guaranteed in this way.”


Photo: Sergei CHIRIKOV / POOL / AFP

Follow us on Twitter, like our page on Facebook and share our contents.

If you enjoy our analyses, videos and dossiers, stay in touch by signing up to our newsletter (twice a month). 



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)