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A Turkish Perspective on Syria - Part II: Silence Before the Storm

by Ercan Çitlioğlu
An updated assessment of the situation in Syria, especially Idlib, from a Turkish perspective with a detailed overview of the actors on the ground.

This publication reflects the views of the author only.

While recent developments that took place in Syria in the ten months following the publication of our first report, titled “A Turkish Perspective on Syria” (September 2020), have attracted relatively little public attention in Turkey, and inadequate coverage in the media (barring some isolated incidents, including YPG's infiltration attempts into the Euphrates Shield Region, harassing fires, suicide attacks with car bombs and motorcycles, attacks with IEDs), they nonetheless indicate some important changes and contractions in Ankara's position towards the region.

It may be recalled that in the conclusion part of our report (Appendix: 1), Russia was identified as the most important actor in resolving the problem that seems to stem, for the large part, from Turkey's wishes and preferences in Idlib, and that by keeping various disagreements in separate compartments, Turkey and Russia appeared keen to avoid a catharsis in their bilateral relations. Our report also concluded that solving the Idlib problem would not be limited to Syria only.

Further highlighted in the report was the fact that several vexed issues, including but not limited to: Turkey’s close contact with the HTS (even though there has been some distancing now); competing interests in Libya; Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's remarks during his visit to (Greek) Cyprus, which opened up for discussion the Turkish guarantees on the island (stemming from the London and Zurich agreements) to support the Greek Cypriot arguments; Deputy Foreign Minister Borisov's statement on the signing of contracts between Russian energy companies and the Syrian government by reaching an agreement on oil exploration in the Mediterranean; Russia's manoeuvre that resulted in the indirect inclusion of the PYD in the Geneva talks; and Turkey's support for the Syrian National Army, were all hanging over the relations between Ankara and Moscow like the sword of Damocles in relation to Syria in general and in Idlib in particular.

And yet, considering the sword metaphor; the state of the bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow, but also the relations of the other players on the Syrian chessboard, notably the United States, with Turkey, and their competing designs regarding the future of Syria, do not offer the Kremlin and Ankara with a sword that can cut the apparent Gordian's knot.

Moreover, various areas of disagreement between Ankara and Moscow, which were highlighted in our September report and briefly mentioned above, are now exacerbated further with the addition of new disagreements including those over Ukraine, Crimea, Karabakh, the S-400 missile systems, drones exported by Turkey (to Ukraine, Poland and Azerbaijan), the decision taken at the NATO Leaders Summit in Brussels relating to the Black Sea security and Montreux debates, and the fact that the election results in Syria were not recognized by Turkey.
The conclusion part of our report (Appendix: 2) also stressed that Turkey was faced with an urgent task to determine its course of action and policy in view of the US presence in the west of Syria, which became permanent through cooperation with the PYD, and in the event that the PYD is legitimized in the post-conflict restructuring process (de facto) or is integrated into the new administration following the possible transformation of the Syrian state into a federal structure (de jure).

One of the two main problems which faces Turkey in Syria, that is becoming more pressing with each passing day, relates to its support of various groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army that both the Assad regime and Russia consider terrorists, and the future status of these groups in Syria. The other, and more distant one relates to the normalization process. In this regard, our report also highlighted several suggestions in relation to tackling threats that the YPG would pose to Turkey's national security and how to fill the gap that may arise, when Turkish withdrawal from the areas it now controls enters the agenda.

Since a significant part of the problems that were highlighted in our report persist throughout Syria and have become more diversified and aggravated by the recent developments, they were summarized above in order to offer the reader a more thorough evaluation and comparison between the recent past and the current situation.

Before looking at the current situation in more detail below, it is important to note several important developments that have taken place since September. In this regard, the joint patrols carried out by the Turkish and Russian troops in Idlib were initially suspended on August 13, (Maria Zakharova - briefing on August 13, 20201) and ended as of August 25, 2020, followed by the cessation of joint patrols in the Peace Shield region. In the meantime, a certain part of the M4 highway connecting Aleppo to Latakia, which is of vital importance for Russia, remains under the control of opposition groups (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - Hurras al Din - Turkistan Islamic Party – Kata’ib Khattab al-Shishani), and PYD's presence continues in Tell Rifaat and Manbij, which are under the control of Russian forces. Moreover, all the observation posts that Turkey had established in Idlib pursuant to the Astana agreements (March 5) have been evacuated, and the existing troops, equipment and weapon systems are relocated to the temporary base areas dotted around to the south and southwest of Idlib.

Ercan Çitlioğlu
Strategic Studies Implementation and Research Centre, Başkent University Ankara