Talking peace, preparing for war

Syria is not only still wrecked, but still divided. Esen Uslu reports on the tripartite negotiations and their significance

In December we witnessed a new move over Syria. The defence ministers and intelligence chiefs of Russia, Syria and Turkey met in Moscow. Proof that the whispers we had been hearing within political circles in Turkey were well founded.

Afterwards a well-publicised meeting between presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin took place and things began to pick up pace. Inevitably vocal and visible opposition to their schemes appeared and now we are awaiting a meeting of foreign ministers, followed by a possible summit of the heads of state.

The expectation is that other parties will be invited to further negotiations to resolve the decade-long conflict in Syria, not least the involvement of Turkey in Syrian affairs, as well as its occupation of a large swathe of the north of that country.

Such a schedule and its long-term aims seems at present unrealistic. However, in the short term the route chosen by Russia and Turkey has some advantages for Erdoğan and Putin in their attempts to resolve their problems. Russia, of course, is mired in a war in Ukraine, and has become a pariah in the international arena, so the successful presentation of Putin as a peace-maker, while at the same time strengthening Russia’s position in the eastern Mediterranean, would be a major win.

Instead of putting the brakes on Turkey’s aggressive ambitions for further land grabs in Syria by deploying more Russian troops and equipment, Putin may ease the pressure by hinting at increased cooperation that may assist Erdoğan. Putin is also trying to pull Erdoğan deeper into Eurasian politics, further developing the rift between Turkey and the USA. As things stand, Turkey is still blocking the expansion of Nato, and refuses to fall in behind the sanctions regime imposed on Russia.


For Erdoğan and his cohorts in the army top brass, the embarrassing impasse created by their open commitment to eradicate Kurdish strongholds on the Syrian borders through military action, and the restraints imposed from many sides, including Russia, the USA, Iran and China, could be diffused through the ongoing negotiations. The moves towards reconciliation may also improve the chances of Erdoğan in the coming elections, due to be held in Turkey by mid-June at the latest. The economic dire straits suffered by the people of Turkey seemed to have reduced his chances of winning - unless, of course, he manages to pull some kind of rabbit out of the hat.

The refugees from Syria living in Turkey are seen as a burden by a majority of the population, and Erdoğan is trying to find ways to appear as if he is doing his best to repatriate a sizeable portion of them. The hype of a negotiated settlement and thousands of refugees leaving seems a very attractive vote-puller - though the opposition alliance has been airing similar proposals for some time.

Initially Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, was not willing to boost Erdoğan’s electoral chances, but, as one Syrian observer quipped, “he may be doomed to Erdoğan’s policy without Erdoğan” after the Turkish elections, if he does not play his cards well. The army top brass and the state bureaucrats lined up behind Erdoğan, as well as the loyal parliamentary opposition were all in tune with Erdoğan’s policy, so that assessment may be sound.

If Assad agrees to sit at the negotiating table, he could well force the Sunni opposition (concentrated in the north-eastern corner of the country under the protection of Turkey) to step back and open the corridor along the highways between the cities of Latakia and Aleppo. That has been his aim for years now and one of the prime issues under the 2017 Astana agreement.

Assad has a certain degree of support in Syria, but to maintain his position he needs more than Russian backing internationally. He must appear as a willing participant in any process claiming to be about resolving the situation in Syria - his own future depends on it. By bringing in the Gulf countries to finance the rebuilding of his devastated country he hopes to restore stability.

However, when it comes to the Kurds, they are not exactly keen on supporting any negotiations which exclude them. After all, one of the aims of such negotiations is to dismantle the de facto autonomous structures established by the Kurds. While Turkey aims to crush the Rojava autonomous region completely, along with its Asayish (internal security forces), the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), Assad is looking to dismantle the US partnership with Kurdish forces, and to get the Kurds on his side. The 100,000-strong, battle-hardened Kurdish forces would be a boon to his depleted army and the Russians too are very keen on such an outcome.

If leaked information is correct, Assad has refused to form a joint front against the SDF. This has given a boost to those Kurds who used to work with the Syrian regime until 1998, who support the idea that negotiations with Assad are the only realistic policy. However, Kurdish leaders in Rojava have argued that rapprochement with the Syrian regime is aimed at stopping their cooperation with US forces on the ground. They are also acutely aware of Donald Trump’s sudden move to abandon their much needed protection by US forces. They know too that the US has been influential in keeping various Arab tribes within the SDF. In order to maintain the unity of the SDF and not lose contingents to Assad, US support is essential.

Also, US presence is instrumental in keeping the oil fields operating and under control, allowing oil to be exported to Iraq. It also helps to maintain a certain relationship with the west, as well as the Gulf states. The relationship also creates tensions between the US and Turkey and provides opportunities for manoeuvres.


There are voices claiming that the US may change its stance without abandoning the Kurds by persuading Turkey to return to its previous role as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region. US sanctions against Syria could be eased and Turkey could play a leading role in rebuilding Syria by accessing Gulf money and gradually pushing the Damascus regime to change its orientation.

However, these seem to be old hopes and dreams, since Turkey’s expansionism is not limited to Syria, where it maintains an army of mercenaries. A last-minute resolution was unanimously adopted by the United Nations security council to continue ‘humanitarian aid’ to the Idlib province in Syria through Turkey for six more months. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese opposed the move, as they previously had.

But all these sweeteners seem insufficient to change the opposition of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and other smaller Islamist armed groups that control Idlib to what they regard as Turkey’s betrayal. There have been several demonstrations against Turkey in Idlib, which is home to 4.1 million people - about half of whom were transferred from other parts of the country, when they were retaken by Assad’s forces.

Turkey is also playing a divisive role in Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, as well as maintaining bases and strong points controlling roads and passes. Its air force bombs at will, and drones are used for targeted assassinations. Then there is Azerbaijan, encouraged by Turkey to maintain pressure on Armenia, and Libya, where Turkey has been using its influence to prevent any permanent resolution of the conflict. Direct intervention by Turkey in Libya utilised the Syrian National Army mercenaries, supplying tanks, long-range artillery, multiple rocket systems and maritime patrols. In return Libya’s Government of National Accord signed an agreement with Turkey creating a new ‘sea border’ excluding Greece.

For years the Aegean Islands, which were supposed to be demilitarised, have been a matter of contention between Greece and Turkey. The air forces of the two countries have been conducting mock dog-fights several times every month. A similar cat-and-mouse game is played by the navies and coastguards regularly. Refugees in the region have been weaponised by Turkey, having been encouraged to gather in large numbers at certain points of the land border with its neighbour and ‘ally’ in Nato. There is a rabid arms race between the two countries.

The military-industrial complex in Turkey seems to have the upper hand. The army’s unreserved support for Erdoğan was displayed a few days ago when a new version of the Firtina howitzer was ceremoniously rolled out in front of the media. It was almost a party political broadcast, as Erdoğan’s barbs directed against opposition leaders were vigorously applauded by the generals.

To conclude, hopes for calming and controlling Turkey through a new engagement with the US, thus changing its attitude towards the Kurds and Syria, seem far-fetched at present. In any case, as the general election approaches, we should expect further foreign policy ‘initiatives’ which are in reality no more than a hall of mirrors.

Unless dramatic change happens not only in Turkey but internationally, there is no hope for peace in the region.