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Turkey’s Safe Zone in Northern Syria and International Law

Turkey’s Safe Zone in Northern Syria and International Law

By Ahmed E Souaiaia*

Abstract: Mere hours before Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visits with his Russian counterpart in Sochi, his government clarified the purpose of its invasion of Northern Syrian. The Turkish government frames its intervention as partly humanitarian, partly security missions. Considering that Erdoğan has called for such a “safe zone” as early as 2015, the political purpose of the “safe zone” can hardly be ignored. More significantly, the legal status of the proposed “safe zone” must be assessed. In this brief note, I examine the Turkish claims and weigh them against legal standards. Continue reading

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

Turkey is now alone, thanks to its erratic alliances

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

This map, produced by pro-gov. Syrian group, hints
to Syria’s claim over most of Hatay province, could explain
the strategy for dealing with Idlib.
There are historical and political reasons for Turkey’s determination to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria. However, Turkey’s government might be nervous not just because of the Kurdish separatist aspirations, but also because of its long territorial dispute with the Syrian government, which considers most of Hatay province (Iskenderun) Syrian territory. Looking at the military strategy the Syria government has put in place since the start of its military campaign to regain lost territory, it would appear that the Syrian government wants to address its sovereignty claim over Iskenderun in the context of this armed conflict, in which Turkey has been deeply involved politically and militarily. Turkey, on the other hand, given its erratic decisions related to the Syrian crisis and given its fickle alliances, finds itself alone, abandoned by old allies, Saudi Arabia and the US, and untrusted by its new one, Russia and Iran.

 
First, Turkey’s government knows that a sovereign and united Kurdistan with access to international waters is a formidable one. A landlocked Kurdistan will depend on the goodwill of its neighbors to have access to international markets and to the global community in general. But a Kurdistan stretching from the Iraqi-Iranian border in the east to the Mediterranean in the west is viable, strong, and rich. Turkey, more than all its neighbors is threatened by this prospect for many obvious reasons. That is why Turkey feels the need to act now before a political solution for the Syrian crisis, which might result in the creation of a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria, is reached. 
 
Second, it must be noted that Hatay province is inhabited by diverse ethnic and religious groups, but Arabs and Alevis are a majority in its population of nearly 1.5 million people. The region, therefore, despite being under Turkish control, is strongly pro-Syrian government and throughout the Syrian crisis period, many of its people demonstrated in support of the Syrian government.
 
Third, nearly 500,000 Syrians were displaced by the violence in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and these displaced people settled in Hatay province. Moreover, the province borders the very volatile Idlib province that has been a relocation destination for all armed groups who chose not to enter into “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian government. Idlib is controlled primarily by the powerful Islamist factions supported by Turkey and Qatar, mainly Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS; formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). 
 
Most recently, a number of factions defected from Ahrar al-Sham to join HTS making it the largest Islamist armed group in northern Syria. Parts of Idlib has been designated by the agreement (sponsored by Turkey, Russia, and Iran) as reduced violence zone. However, Russia has insisted all along that all de-escalation zones must exclude terrorist organization and, in the case of Idlib, given its proximity and connection to Turkey, Russia asked Turkey to dissolve or liquidate HTS. Turkey failed to do so, choosing instead to prioritize fighting Kurdish armed groups over fighting HTS and its affiliates. That development initiated a series of other events leading to the current situation. 
 
First, the Syrian government and its allies determined that Turkey has failed to deal with terrorist organizations in Idlib. The government, aided with Russian air force and allied troops, launched a multi-front offensive from the eastern regions under its control and appears to be moving westward. Today, the Syrian government announced full control of Abu Duhu airbase, a large strategic military facility, nearly 16 km2 at the intersection of three key provinces—Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo, that can be used to launch future operations deeper into all three provinces. 
 
Turkey moved troops to some points in Syria and began a military campaign against the Kurds in Afrin. Meanwhile, the US shifted its support to Kurds from assistance to defeat ISIS to training and equipping a permanent military force that it called border control units, which angered the Turkish government and raised some questions about the legality of US presence in Syria without clear UNSC or government authorization. 
 
The Syrian government’s long term strategy is now revealed by its actions on the ground. It appears to involve military campaign to clear internal regions and relocate the diehard armed groups to Idlib with the intent to ultimately force them into Hatay province. Once there, they will be Turkey’s problem to deal with them on its own or enter into an agreement with the Syrian government to settle the border dispute and accommodate the people living therein. That is an impressive long-term strategy, unlike Turkey’s, involving trusted, reliable regional and international allies. 
 
Turkey on the other hand, did not seem to have had a long-term strategy. That fact can be deduced from its erratic alliances. First it joined the anti-Assad coalition led by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and several EU states. Then it joined the anti-ISIS coalition led by the US. Finally, it turned to Russia and Iran. But in the end, and with its Afrin operation, Turkey finds itself alone. Turkey, now, must deal with the ramifications of a crisis that it helped create but failed to control its outcome. Syria, on the other hand, may end up regaining control over disputed border territory or use it to settle its undesirables and all foreign fighters who came to support them. A Hatay province under Turkish control but full of diehard zealots will continue to be a threat to Turkish security and stability–in fact, more so than the imagined or real Kurdish threat.

 
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated. For more information, please visit: http://www.ahmedsouaiaia.com

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Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

Deir al-Zour is the end of the road in Syria for both, US and Russia, will they collide or reverse course?

By Abdel Bari Atwan
US-backed SDF (yellow) are now face to face with Russia-backed SAA (red)
For the first time since the Syrian crisis began some seven years ago, there is a growing prospect of a military collision taking place between Russia and the United States over the oil and gas fields in and around Deir az-Zour. The US wants these wells to fall into the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) so they can be used to sustain a future Kurdish enclave or state in northern Syria. Russia wants them to revert to the sovereignty of the Syrian state so their revenues can help fund the country’s reconstruction.


On Sunday, the Russian defence ministry held the US responsible for the deaths of senior military advisor Lt.-Gen. Valery Asopov and two colonels who were accompanying him who were killed when their position was shelled by Islamic State (IS) forces in the village of Marat east of the Euphrates River. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described the deaths as ‘the bloody price for two-faced American policy in Syria,’ adding that ‘the American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS … but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington.’ The accusation was unprecedented, and led to a sharp rise in tension between the two sides.

The village was the first site to be recaptured by Syrian government forces east of the Euphrates, and was being used as a base from which to control Deir az-Zour and retake the oil and gas fields to its east.
The more damning accusation, in the view of many observers, is Russia’s claim to  have evidence supported by photographs of collusion between US forces backing the SDF and IS east of the Euphrates. It also accuses the Americans of being behind the major assault launched last week by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) from Idlib governorate, which they control, against government positions in Hama, aimed at slowing the eastward advance of Syrian and Russian forces towards Deir az-Zour and the oilfields.
On Tuesday, Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was still awaiting replies from Washington to questions about ‘whom US Special Forces in Syria are fighting with and against’. He referred to images of former IS positions that had been taken by American Special Forces that showed no sign of fighting or aerial bombardment having taken place, and which lacked the protective defences that would normally be expected, implying collusion between the two sides.
The US has had nothing to say about these charges, or about allegations by Iranian commanders that the US held back from fighting IS in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
One of the triggers of the Syrian crisis was that the government in Damascus turned down proposals to build a pipeline through Syria to carry Qatari gas to Europe. It did so partly at the request of Russia, which feared that the project was aimed at  under-cutting its own gas exports to Europe. Now another ‘oil war’ seems to be looming in the east of the country.
This poses a serious question: Is the ‘war on terror’ declared by the US a mere façade, or are Russia’s accusations of US collusion with IS and al-Qaeda off the mark? And when did this alleged collusion begin, at the outset of the crisis or just in the past year? We cannot offer answers at present. The American side has not presented evidence to disprove the Russian claims. But no evidence is needed of the US’s strong backing for the Kurdish SDF as it fights to secure control of al-Raqqa and the Deir az-Zour oilfields, and takes steps toward establishing a Kurdish state in northern Syria by holding municipal elections to be followed by parliamentary polls.
Russia can be expected to exact revenge for the killing of its commander and two colonels, as it did by launching airstrikes targeting Nusra Front commanders in Idlib in retaliation for an earlier attack on its troops. This could result in US forces on Syrian soil coming under Russian attack, potentially sparking the fuse of a confrontation.
The next big crisis brewing in the region may not stem from this week’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, but from growing tensions between the US and Russia – though Washington’s ambiguous attitude to that referendum, and to Syrian Kurdish separatist plans, is inextricably related to that tension.
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* SAA = Syrian Arab Army

Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? Consider the reaction on the ground in Syria

Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? Consider the reaction on the ground in Syria

Analysis: Was Astana Meeting on Syria a Success? 
Leader of the new faction created by Nusra: Abu Jabir al-Sheikh
In past, when the U.S. administration and the Russian government attempted to solve the Syrian crisis, their efforts collapsed because they failed to reach an agreement on identifying and separating terrorist groups from non-terrorist groups, or groups that are willing to negotiate a political settlement from those who don’t. Then, after a single meeting held in Astana, which was convened by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, armed groups in northern Syria appear to be separating themselves along those lines. If that process continues, the Astana meeting would have achieved what many meetings have failed to do.

Even before the end of the Astana meeting, which was attended by representatives of about ten armed groups in Syria, the powerful group formerly known as al-Nusra, launched a preemptive war against the groups that took part in the meeting. Nusra accused them of signing on a deal that will isolate Nusra and label it as a terrorist organization, which will allow forces of the various coalitions operating in Syria to attack it. 
Seeking protections from Nusra, smaller armed groups quickly moved to join stronger Islamist groups. According to Ahrar al-Sham, on Thursday alone, six rebel factions, including Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, joined its ranks.

Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Nusra had rejected mediation attempts. It said that any attack on its new members will be tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

The groups that joined Ahrar al-Sham are: Alwiyat Suqur al-Sham, Fastaqim kama unmirt, Jaysh al-Islam–Idlib branch, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya–west Aleppo branch.

Ahrar al-Sham is considered a terrorist group by Moscow and did not attend the Russian-backed Astana meeting. But it said it would support FSA factions that took part if they secured a favorable outcome for the opposition.
    

These steps taken by Ahrar al-Sham created an internal crisis for the group. A number of its leading figures resigned and there were reports that some factions within the group left and joined Nusra. 
On Friday, and underscoring the titanic shift that took place after the Astana meeting and other developments around the world, Nusra, which had changed its name to Jabhat Fath al-Sham, announced that it is dissolving itself and merging with four other armed groups to form a new faction calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This new coalition consists of Nour Eddine Zenki Movement, Liwa al-Haq, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. They called on other armed groups to join them.
These events are extraordinary. Some have criticized the Syrian government for accepting settlements with armed groups and allowing their fighters to move to Idlib. It seems that Assad’s government has had a long term strategy after all. With the infighting that is going to start soon that now new alliances are formed among the rebels, his forces may not have to fight these armed groups. They will battle each other to near extinction, given their propensity to see an enemy in every one who disagrees with them. The Syrian government will then move in and retake the province form the exhausted survivors without major losses.


Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

Why does the U.S. administration want its agreement with Russia on Syria to remain secret?

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) scheduled a meeting this week to create a legal frame for the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria. The meeting was eventually cancelled when France and several other permanent members of the UNSC asked for a copy of the actual agreement instead of being briefed about it by the two countries representatives. Russia agreed with France and expressed readiness to make public the agreement reasoning that they can’t expect their partners to endorse a deal they don’t know its details. After the cancellation of the meeting, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said:
 

“Most likely we are not going to have a resolution at the Security Council because the United States does not want to share those documents with the members of the Security Council. We believe we cannot ask them to support a document that they haven’t seen.”

The U.S. administration refused to make public all the documents contending that doing so could put some lives at risk and jeopardize the success of the plan since it contains sensitive “operational details.” 
 
In any case, the Obama administration finds itself in a very delicate situation. The main sticky point that delayed the agreement with the Russian government was related to Russia’s insistence that the U.S. and its allies identify and separate the so-called “moderate” rebels from terrorists so that a political solution can be negotiated. Ostensibly, the U.S. administration eventually agreed to do so and its military and intelligence officials have provided their Russian counterparts with a list of names, without indicating their locations. 
It is likely that the named groups are members of the loose collective called the Free Syrian Army—FSA—which, in reality, was mostly crushed by al-Nusra and ISIL about three years ago. What is left of the FSA is either isolated in and/or near Turkey (and Jordan) and the rest are mingling with al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Fath. Those still mingling with Jaysh al-Fath released a statement criticizing the agreement and rejecting the part of the agreement that calls for joint U.S.-Russian military action against Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. They considered al-Nusra a legitimate rebel group. 
The FSA currently consists of these armed groups:
 

Faylaq al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, al-Firqa al-Shamaliyya, Jaysh al-Nasr, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zanki, al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad al-sham, al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, Jaysh al-Tahrir, al-Fawj al-Awwal, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Safwa al-Islamiyya, Liwa’ Suqur Jabal al-Zawiya, al-Firqa 101, al-Firqa 13, al-Firqa al-Wusta, Liwa al-Hurriya al-Islami, Jabhat al-Asala wa-‘l-Tanmiya, Failaq Hims, Liwa’ al-Fath, Tajammu’ Fastaqim kama Umirt, and Jund Badr 313.

 
Nearly half of the above mentioned groups are also members of other coalitions, some of which include al-Qaeda affiliated Salafists, like Fath al-Sham and Jaysh al-Fath. These complex networks and affiliations underscore the administration’s real dilemma.

The U.S. administration is reluctant because, one the one hand, revealing actual names and locations of groups it supports would make it easy for terrorist groups to accuse them of collaboration with the “crusaders” and kill them, as they did with many individuals and groups in the past. On the other hand, revealing the actual names could expose the U.S. administration’s support for groups that might have committed war crimes, such as the case with al-Zanki, whose members self-documented themselves slaughtering a sick child near Aleppo not long ago (just this July).

 
Given the  atrocities committed by many of rebel groups, affiliated with the FSA, the U.S. administration prefers to leave its connections to groups that might be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity secret to preserve deniability. However, the inking of the agreement with Russia made that task utterly difficult and the administration will be better served breaking any ties with groups suspected of committing crimes and working towards a solution that will stop the bloodshed and punish those responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes on both sides.
 

Will Jabhat Fath al-Sham (aka al-Nusra), Jaysh al-Fath, and ISIL join forces?

Will Jabhat Fath al-Sham (aka al-Nusra), Jaysh al-Fath, and ISIL join forces?

With a Russian-U.S. agreement intended to isolate them from the so-called moderate opposition groups, Salafist fighters could end up joining forces to survive in Syria and Iraq. This scenario is made possible by a religious decree issued by the foremost religious guide for Salafists, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The latter just issued a fatwa declaring the Turkish army and all opposition groups supported by Turkey “murtadd.”This declaration practically authorizes Salafist fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and its derivatives to fight the Turkish government and rebel groups it supports.

It should be noted that al-Maqdisi intervened to keep peace between ISIL and al-Nusra and when that attempt failed he sided with al-Nusra. With both groups now being targeted by Turkey, Russia, U.S., non-Salafist rebels, and the Syrian government, Salafists may be forced to reunite again to spread the conflict zones and cause the cease-fire regime to which the U.S. and Russia has just agreed to fail. This unification option has been in the making since the U.S. and Russia began to talk early this year. Salafist leaders wanted to create a Sunni army  out of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Istaqim kama umirt, and Jaysh al-Islam and other smaller groups affiliated with these armies.

Assad and Erdoğan said to be preparing for face-to-face meeting in Russia

Assad and Erdoğan said to be preparing for face-to-face meeting in Russia

Assad and Erdoğan in 2009
It has been reported for sometime now that Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials have met on many occasions. Now, some sources are revealing that those meetings were not just about coordinating efforts to combat common threats to both countries, namely the Kurdish separatist, but to arrange for political leaders to meet. 
Turkey broke all diplomatic relations with Syria mere days after the start of the peaceful protest movement in Syria. Because of the lack of open channels of communication, the two countries relied on third parties to reach out to one another when necessary.
Earlier this year, some media outlets reported that Algeria played a key role in opening a communication channel between Syria and Turkey. Now, new reports are suggesting that Russia, after the surprising meeting between Erdoğan and Putin, is working behind the scene not only to transmit information between the two countries, but also to arrange for a meeting that will bring together Assad and Erdoğan in Russia. Importantly, the meeting is significant in that it will be part of a plan that could end the civil war in Syria.
Reportedly, the plan is based on some ideas from the Geneva and Vienna meetings, but more specific in terms of the fate of Assad and his role beyond the transition period.
The proposed plan will call for a unity government that will include members of the “moderate” opposition groups, with Assad still in charge of key ministries during a transition period. After about 18 months, a period during which the constitution will be amended, new presidential and parliamentarian elections will be held, in which Assad may choose to run. However, should he run and win, it will be his last term. Some of the opposition fighters will be absorbed into the Syrian army and officers who deserted  but did not take part in the war will be re-instated. Assad must work towards reconciliation by declaring a new amnesty for these officers who are now residing in Turkey with their families.
These are extraordinary events should they actually come true. But given the steps taken by Erdoğan when he apologized for shooting down the Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, it is not at all impossible to see him take steps to reconcile with the Syrian government. After all, given that his troubles with Russia were over Syria, his normalizing of relations with Putin will be meaningless without addressing the main issue that caused the crisis with Russia in the first place.
It is clear by now that Turkey after the failed July 15 coup is very different from the pre-coup Turkey, albeit under the same president.

Will Erdoğan abandon Islamist armed groups now fighting in Syria?

Will Erdoğan abandon Islamist armed groups now fighting in Syria?

It is established that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the party he founded, the AKP, are primary supporters of armed groups fighting the Syrian government. The AKP-led Turkish government opened its borders for Islamist fighters from all over the world to join the war against Assad’s forces.  It provided them with training, money, and weapons. The Turkish government also hosted the families of the Syrian fighters. 
Although its support went to all groups fighting the Syrian government because it prioritized the overthrow of Assad over all other matters, including fighting terrorism, the Turkish government offered special support to Islamists including al-Nusra Front and ISIL. It did so for sectarian and ideological reasons, but also for practical reasons: ISIL and al-Nusra were the strongest fighting groups in Syria and Assad’s government cannot be ousted without them. 
Five years later, and when Russia threw its military weight behind Assad, the Turkish government came to the realization that Assad is, and will remain, for the near future at least, a “key actor” who would play a role in any political solution for the Syrian crisis. That is when Erdoğan decided to adjust his strategy and work with Russia, instead of against it, to preserve some level of influence over the future of Syria. 
Syria is important for Turkey because of their shared problems and concerns: the status of the Kurdish people in both countries forced them to work together in the past, and will force them to work together in the future. In other words, Turkey has no choice but to remain engaged in dealing with the Syrian crisis. 
Adjusting the Turkish strategy will necessarily have significant effects on Turkish relations with Islamist fighters in Syria. Will Turkey abandon them?
The answer can be drawn from Erdoğan’s history. He is a very skilled politician who is willing to sacrifice old alliances in favor of better ones. If his alliance with Islamists becomes a burden, Erdoğan will dump them. Consider his alliance with Fethullah Gülen for proof.
Part of the credit for AKP and Erdoğan’s rise to power goes to the role played by Gülen and his movement. Yet, a decade later, when Erdoğan wanted to consolidate his power, he took steps to control that movement and its institutions. Gülen became aware of Erdoğan’s thirst for more power and he resisted him covertly at first. Erdoğan decided to bring him home where he can better control him. So on June 14, while speaking at a public event organized by a Gülen organization, he issued a public invitation, telling Gülen “it is time to come home.” Gülen, perhaps aware of the risks, tearfully declined the invitation on June 16, saying, in essence, not yet.
Four years later, Gülen stands accused by Erdoğan of being the mastermind of the failed military coup. Had Gülen accepted the invitation then, he would be in prison now, without creating a diplomatic and legal crisis with the U.S. administration, which is refusing to extradite him at this point.
Erdoğan, is the kind of politician who knows how to survive and will do whatever it takes to not just survive, but reverse losses and thrive. For this reason, Erdoğan is not only capable of abandoning his Islamist fighters in Syria, he could launch a military campaign to eradicate them altogether, and throw their Turkish supporters in prison. Justifying such actions will not be that difficult either. Terrorist attacks, like yesterday’s, are enough to turn the Turkish public against all Syrian opposition fighters and create a new path toward reconciliation with a Syrian government with or without Assad.

Turkish and Russian leaders can no longer compartmentalize their relations

Turkish and Russian leaders can no longer compartmentalize their relations

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
Turkey’s president may have pushed the reset button of his country’s relations with Russia, but it will be a while before he can reap economic benefits.
 

Reason for Putin wanting gradual restoration of economic ties with Turkey: Russia cannot help rejuvenate the Turkish economy to enable the Turkish government to kill Russian soldiers (and abuse their corpses) in Syria by proxies

In 2011, the sudden protest movement popularly known as the Arab Spring triggered fundamental changes in the political and social landscapes of the Middle East—not just the Arab world as the name suggests. Turkey’s government, like many others around the world, did not know how to react at first. Erdoğan, as his country’s prime minister and then president, supported the Tunisian revolution, wavered in his support for the Egyptian president before committing to supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposed NATO’s war on Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. When peaceful protesters took the streets in some Syrian cities, Erdoğan, relying on a sectarian instinct and a nationalist impulse, offered Assad fifteen days to meet the protesters’ demands before he would cut all relations and put all his weight behind the Syrian opposition forces. A few weeks later, Turkey played a pivotal role in using Qatari and Saudi money and weapons to transition the protest movement into an armed rebellion committed to a single objective: overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. This role, to which Erdoğan committed himself, necessarily created a conflict for him with two other powerful neighbors and economic partners: Russia and Iran.
For the first four years of the Syrian crisis, the leaders of Turkey, Iran, and Russia thought that they could compartmentalize their relations. They could continue to strengthen their economic ties, while agreeing to disagree on Syria. That approach failed when it became clear that the differences between Turkey on one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, in relation to Syria were more than disagreements. Iran and Russia have had long-standing strategic alliances with Syria for many years. In fact, two years earlier, Iran had signed a security deal with Syria that required each of them to come to the aid of the other should one be attacked. Russia has had a naval base in Syria since the days of the Soviet Union. With that being the case, it was not possible to compartmentalize, especially when all three countries were committed to preserving their interests in Syria and in the region.
So it was no surprise that all three countries were actively involved in Syria beyond what they publicly revealed. Russia and Iran first provided the Syrian government with weapons and economic assistance to help it weather the crisis, but Turkey took a direct role from the start of the conflict and allowed the free flow of weapons and fighters into Syria. By 2015, all three countries increased their involvement. Turkey provided training, control and command centers, and free flow of weapons and fighters to the opposition groups. Russia and Iran sent more military hardware and eventually fighter jets and military personnel to Syria. That escalation led to the crucial mistake on the part of the Turkish leaders.
Hoping to draw NATO deeper in the Syrian conflict, Erdoğan ordered a Russian bomber shot down. The crew ejected, but one member was killed by an armed group supported by Turkish security forces and partially staffed by Turkish citizens. This incident prompted President Putin to impose harsh economic sanctions that further stressed the slumping Turkish economy. Russia’s economic, rather than military, response to what they saw as an act of war rendered NATO useless in terms of assisting Turkey. Putin then insisted that economic sanctions would stay in place and might even be tightened unless Erdoğan formally apologized and took responsibility for downing the Russian fighter jet and killing the pilot. Erdoğan insisted that it was Putin who should apologize for violating Turkish airspace. Seven months later, with the Turkish economy in decline, Erdoğan sent a letter to Putin expressing sorrow and taking responsibility for the incident. Russian leaders welcomed the gestures and promised to ease some of the sanctions. But Erdoğan wanted more than easing the sanctions—he needed economic relations between the two countries to be restored to the pre-incident period or better. So he requested an earlier meeting with Putin than the one scheduled to happen on the sidelines of the G-20 in China in September of this year. Putin obliged and offered to meet him in Saint Petersburg on August 9.
Erdoğan’s eagerness to meet with his Russian counterpart was motivated by economic considerations, with all other interests being secondary. Russian leaders are also interested in boosting economic ties, but not in a way that will undercut their broader interests in the region. Consequently, the two sides went into the meeting with different priorities. However, it is clear that the Turkish side lacks the strategic thinking that would allow them to see the connection between the Syrian crisis and their national economic conditions. The Turkish economy’s growth was cut by almost 50% immediately after the Syrian crisis, and that correlation alone should be enough to convince Turkish leaders to address both their economic concerns and the Syrian crisis at the same time, not in isolation from one another. Failure to do so soon will undo the possible benefits of the apology.
There is a reason Erdoğan is widely popular in Turkey: since he and his party, AKP, won the first elections that allowed them to govern without the need for a coalition for nearly a decade and a half, he turned a slumping economy with a negative GDP growth rate—-5.7 in 2001—into a formidable global force. He attracted investors, rebuilt the infrastructure, and turned Turkey into a magnet for businesspersons and tourists. The results were impressive: Between 2002 and 2011, Turkey’s average GDP growth rate was 5.45.
The average GDP  in the last four years, since the start of the so-called Arab Spring (2012-2015), barely reached 3.33. The numbers for 2016 are worrisome. Turkey’s problem became tied to the Syrian crisis when Erdoğan took it upon himself to be the defender of the Syrian people against their own president: he threw his support behind violent groups allowing the flow of weapons and fighters into that country with the aim of overthrowing Assad’s government. Given the long-standing relationship between Russia and Syria, Turkish-Russian relations suffered, especially when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 near its border with Syria . The connections between the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s relations with Russia, and the health of the Turkish economy are compelling . Although Russia would benefit from economic ties with Turkey, Russian leaders have made the connection between long-term economic development and strategic alliances with other countries. With Russia soldiers now dying in Syria on the hands of fighters enabled, trained, and supported by Turkey, it would be reckless for Russia to fully separate economic interests and military and security matters involving Turkey. That is one of the main reasons Erdoğan returned from Russia practically empty handed, with only promises.
Russia will not shore up a Turkish economy that supports terrorists in Syria who killed Russian soldiers, abused their corpses, and threaten to kill more. For that reason, Putin insisted that the lifting of sanctions must be gradual. Russian thinking is long term: if Putin waited for seven months to receive Erdoğan’s apology, he is prepared to wait another seven months to see Turkey implement its commitments to fighting terrorism by sealing the border and stopping the flow of weapons, fighters, and stolen Syrian oil and goods.
Russians are prepared to fast-track the economic projects that are long term and delay the ones with immediate payoff for the Turkish economy until Turkey meets its obligations. Russia’s thinking was reflected in their plan to restart work on Turkish Stream pipeline, without shelving alternative projects involving other countries. The principle that Russian leaders are using to reset their relations with Turkey also favors restarting economic exchange that benefits the Russian economy and while delaying exchange that benefits the Turkish economy until Turkey changes its calculus on Syria. Russia is not conditioning its economic relations with Turkey on Syria because it cares about Assad, but because Turkey is indirectly killing Russians in Syria.
The other principle guiding Russia’s foreign policy in relation to the Syrian crisis was made clear during the press conference that Erdoğan and Putin held after their first meeting. Responding to the first question, Putin looked at his guest and declared:
“Our position is based on this enduring principle: It is impossible to achieve democratic change except through democratic means.”
Not only are these principles guiding Russia’s approach to the Syrian crisis making it difficult for Erdoğan to capitalize on his pragmatism, the consequences of his involvement in Syria are making it almost impossible to start from zero. Indeed, making amends for one jet and one pilot may cost him some political capital and about $25 million. Should Syria pursue legal action to force countries that supported military aggression and profited from looted goods and natural resources to pay reparations, Turkey could be on the hook for billions. Erdoğan was willing to apologize and normalize relations with Putin but not with not Assad because of the cost that might be associated with admission of responsibility in the destruction of Syria.
This is not to say that Turkey has no way out of its problem with Syria. Erdoğan could use Russia as intermediate partner to spend the next five years rebuilding what he helped destroy in Syria over the past five years. This indirect action could be the compromise that might actually work for all parties. The “coup” that Erdoğan wanted to launch against the Syrian government using genocidal fighters did not work, will not work, and may have inspired the failed coup against his government. He has this one opportunity that he had created when he apologized and took responsibility for downing the Russian plane; if unused, all will be for naught.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Putin-Erdogan first face-to-face talks since Turkey downed the Russian plane cannot avoid addressing the Syrian crisis

Putin-Erdogan first face-to-face talks since Turkey downed the Russian plane cannot avoid addressing the Syrian crisis

Immediately after the first meeting, the Turkish and Russian presidents set down for a press conference. After reading their prepared remarks, the first question to both of them was about Syria. Erdogan, avoided answering the question claiming that a meeting after the press conference will address the Syrian crisis and it would not be appropriate to comment now. Putin on the other hand, revealed his governments’ principle, which will guide the scheduled discussions about Syria:

Our position is based on this enduring principle: It is impossible to achieve democratic change except through democratic means.

 Putin added that he stood by Turkish democracy as a matter of principle, and the same principle applies to Syria. In other words, there cannot be a political solution in Syria that does not go through the Syrian people. The Turkish president, who wanted the world to support democracy against an attempted violent takeover, cannot ask his Russian counterpart to overthrow the president of Syria, and remain consistent. He could argue that Assad’s handling of the protest movement may have reduced his standing among the Syrian people, but only a fair and transparent elections can validate that claim.

Erdogan, can find common ground with his Russian counterpart if he were to give the Syrian people the same right he has given the Turkish people: the right to vote without outside interference.

All Salafist groups that Turkey is supporting to oust Assad do not believe in democracy as a matter of faith. He either shares their belief in democracy being “un-Islamic” or he is inconsistent.

If he has concerns that Assad may not hold fair elections, he should ask his Russian “friend” to give his assurances that elections would meet certain standards. But he cannot predetermine its outcome through a violent overthrow or an outside-imposed exclusion of Assad. Erdogan must choose between democratic processes decided by the Syrian people or violent takeovers. It is that simple, really.
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