Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken in Ankara after his meeting with fellow Astana group Presidents Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation and Hassan Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
His remarks indicate that some form of direct communication between Damascus and Ankara might be possible, something which hasn’t happened since Turkey and Syria severed relations in 2012 after Erdogan used the word “war” to indicate the trajectory of his country’s relationship with his southern Arab neighbour.
Today, Turkey has gone from a pro-US aggressor in Syria, to a country enthusiastically participating in the Astana peace talks with Syria’s partners Russia and Iran. Furthermore, Turkey’s previously illegal occupation of Syria has been given a form of legitimacy due to the fact that the de-escalation zones authorised by the Astana group have been supported by Syria in every instance. Furthermore, as the anti-Takfiri phase of Syria’s battle dies down and with the United States claiming that it will remain in Syria against the wishes of Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad, most parties in Beirut and now Ankara, Syria and Turkey now find themselves facing a common Kurdish enemy backed by the United States.
Unlike speeches before his party faithful where Erdogan often embellishes his rhetoric before his always enthusiastic AKP base, toady he chose his words extremely carefully. His message was one of comradeship and respect towards both Russia and Iran, one of cautious pragmatism in respect of the Syrian government and one of clear objection to the US and their Kurdish militant proxies.
In respect of a possible dialogue with the Syrian government, the Turkish President stated,
“Whatever happens tomorrow, it all depends on the circumstances. It is inexpedient to say ‘never’. The doors of politics are always open until the last moment”.
He continued this train of thought, saying,
“We discussed the issue of the Syria national dialogue congress in detail. We, as three countries, will decide on who will be invited to the congress. Sub-commissions established by our foreign ministries will make the necessary studies beforehand.
We project that all groups and all fractions in Syria will be invited”.
He then however reiterated that he still maintains that the PKK aligned Syrian Kurdish militia YPG and its political arm PYD are considered “terrorist organisations” by Turkey. Erdogan assured his Turkish audience that Russian President Putin “shares our sensitivity about the PYD and the YPG” and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “also objects to the possibility of such an entity, as far as we can see”.
The phrasing of these statements is very telling. It indicates that, as I have written multiple times in The Duran, Russia which still officially maintains that Kurdish factions should be present at the forthcoming Syrian National Dialogue Congress, is pivoting towards a position of sympathy with both the Turkish and Syrian position which is opposed to having Kurdish factions at such a summit. President Putin did not mention Kurdish factions at this weeks’ meeting of Astana group Presidents, which makes it clear that Russia and Turkey are working closely towards a solution that is to the satisfaction of all parties. The same can be very safely assumed in respect of Russian discussions with Syria.
Erdogan then explained that he was told by President Putin, the nature of some of the discussions held between the Russian and Syrian Presidents. This is a confirmation that Russia is acting as a go-between for Syrian and Turkish governments which still are not speaking directly, although this could clearly change sooner than many had expected. Erdogan stated,
“For example, he talked about the negative view of Assad against the PYD-YPG. He mentioned that he (Assad) does not want the PYD-YPG on the (negotiation) table either. This is not so surprising”.
Erdogan then stated that while the Syrian government does not want any Kurds at the peace-table, that Turkey is happy to sit across from Kurds that are not members of the PYD-YPG terrorist organisation that forms the core of Washington’s Kurdish led SDF militia. While this is not entirely true, as Syria has stated that after the conflict against Takfiri terrorism is settled, Damascus will be happy to discuss internal matters with moderate Kurdish representatives who are not part of the Washington led invasion and occupation, it does show that like Syria, Turkey is willing to meet Russia half way on this matter, so long as the US is not able to use its Kurdish proxies to further endanger the region’s collective security.
In this sense, while treading carefully over the explosive Kurdish question, both Turkey and Syria have left a door open for dealing with what one could potentially call ‘moderate Kurdish factions’, which in effect means, those that have not participated in either the US proxy campaign in Syria as well as those who are not members of the PYD-YPG.
This is where Russia can come in to seal a possible deal. With the US claiming that it will not leave Syria until it secures the position of its Kurdish proxies through a long-term occupation illegal occupation of Syria, it leaves both Turkey and Syria in a unique position of either fighting Kurdish terrorists aligned with the United States or allowing Russia to being some moderate Kurdish factions to the peace table and separate terrorist Kurds from ‘moderate rebels’, just as Russia, Turkey and Iran have effectively agreed to do in respect of crypto-Takfiri factions who are willing to lay down their arms in-line with the ongoing Damascus policy of a general amnesty for all Syrian citizens who renounce violence and embrace a political process.
In this sense the Astana Group could effectively take the wind out of the US sails over the Kurdish question, just as it previously did over the jihadist question.
The following scenarios I detailed yesterday, appear to be coming together in the synthesis I postulated as the logical result of each scenario being constructively considered by Turkey:
“Now that it is all but confirmed that the US seeks to undermine Syria’s sovereignty and the joint peace process of Russia, Iran and Turkey, which Syria supports, the Astana Group, along with Syria must become more united than ever against a common threat–that of the United States and its Kurdish proxies. Here are some ways this can be accomplished.
1. Russia green lights Turkey’s anti-Kurdish manoeuvres in Syria
It has long been the case that Turkey’s primary motive for maintaining a strong troop presence in Idlib and parts of Aleppo Governorate, is for the purpose of restraining, containing and taking territory from Kurdish insurgents who have unilaterally occupied parts of Syria and set up shadow regimes.
While Russia had previously sought to include Kurds in a final settlement, because at this point, Kurdish militants and US imperialists are now largely interchangeable terms, Russia has all the more incentive to allow Turkey to do the ‘dirty work’ it has taken upon itself to do and neutralise the Kurdish threat to Syria.
If Turkey is able to neutralise Kurdish insurgents, the US would lose its fig-leaf for the continued illegal occupation of Syria. Because Iraq, with international support from both Iran and Turkey, crushed a would-be insurgency from Kurdish ethno-nationalists with comparative ease and in short order, there is an existing precedent for Kurdish insurgencies to fizzle-out when met with a strong united front on the battlefield.
Kurds in Syria, if left to their own devices would likely be rapidly destroyed by Turkish forces, especially if given a green light from Turkey’s other two Astana partners, Russia and Iran. This could also help pave the way for the eventual normalisation of relations between Ankara and Damascus.
The biggest problem here remains: will the US fight Turkey for the sake of its Kurdish proxies?
If the US were to truly go all-in for the creation of a would-be Kurdish statelet, it could mean war between two states which are still NATO members. This would almost certainly lead to Turkey withdrawing from the alliance, as it would permanently change the balance of power in the region and beyond.
Turkey has previously stated that if during its battles against Kurdish militants in Syria, Turkish troops were to accidentally fire on American targets, that this would be collateral damage that Ankara is willing to live with. While received wisdom at the time was that these remarks were intended to deter US support for Syrian Kurds, clearly this has not worked. Furthermore, no one should underestimate how seriously Turkey takes the issue of pro-PKK Kurdish insurgents on its border.
If Turkey is willing to engage the US and their proxies in Syria in the medium term, Russia and Iran could barely do anything to stop it from a military point of view, even if they wanted to. The difference is that Russia and Iran do not underestimate Turkey, although the US apparently does. The war in Syria would therefore become a conflict between Turkey and the United States, unless the US refused to back Kurdish militants being attacked by Turkey.
2. Russia convinces Turkey it can disarm Syrian Kurds and bring about a peace process in spite of US ambitions
With the US effectively stating its position vis-a-vis Kurdish militants, Russia could offer Turkey an alternative to fighting US proxies and possibly the US itself in Syria.
If Russia were to convince Turkey that by bringing Kurdish factions into the Syrian National Dialogue Congress and including them in the Astana peace process, that it could militarily neutralise Kurds and even draw them away from the US, this, if presented in a very careful manner, might convince Turkey that it is better to let Russia handle the Kurdish problem diplomatically than for Turkey and the US to sling it out on the field of battle.
If successful, drawing the Kurds into a peace process would also totally eliminate America’s already flimsy argument that the only reason Washington continues to illegally occupy Syria is to insure a peace process which covers the Kurdish question. As Syria had previously stated that it is willing to discuss internal grievances among Kurds in a de-militarised pots-war environment, if presented correctly to Syria, this could likewise placate Damascus while maintaining Russian prestige for the foreseeable future among both Syria and Turkey.
This could be a diplomatic way to take the remaining wind out of US sails while showing Turkey that it is Russia and not the US that has listened respectfully to Turkey’s legitimate concerns.
3. The Astana Group gives the US an ultimatum to quit Syria
While the word “ultimatum” sounds threatening, depending on the context in which it is presented, it needn’t be so.
Furthermore, this option is not mutually exclusive to the previous two scenarios. If the Astana Group effectively said that the US has no mandate in Syria and that one way or another, the issues regarding all self-identified factions in Syria, including the Kurds, will be dealt with by the Astana Group in line with UN Resolution 2254, it would deal another large blow to what very little remains of US prestige on a Syrian peace settlement.
While asking the US to leave Syria, something which Russia has effectively already done using firm yet diplomatic language, it would not guarantee a US exit. But if all of the elements of UN Resolution 2254 were satisfied in accordance with the wishes of all parties, the US would be clearly in Syria for no reason at all–even more so than it is at present and that is saying quite a lot.
This would have the effect of bringing wider public opinion against continued US occupation of Syria, including opinion among many Americans. This is after all what happened in the US war on Vietnam when both international and US public opinion turned fully against America’s presence in South East Asia.
Interestingly, both Russia and Turkey are using increasingly strong language to publicly call for a US withdrawal from Syria. Turkish Member of Parliament Metin Kulunk even recently stated that if the US remains in Syria, it will face a “new Vietnam”.
When it comes to the question of Turkey decided to run the risk of engaging the US militarily in Syria or else accepting a Russian political solution to neutralise the Kurdish threat, this will all be contingent on how much Russia can convince Turkey that Moscow is able to control the Kurdish problem. For the moment, Turkey is already going after Kurdish factions while the peace process continues simultaneously. The aggregate effect is to grind down Kurdish ambitions by effectively pinning them between a Turkish tank and the Astana Group’s collective diplomacy, all while Syrian Kurds will remember the defeat of their ethno-nationalist brethren in Iraq.
In either case, the US has isolated itself on the Syria issue, with all major powers calling for a US withdrawal. If the US believes that its Kurdish proxies can withstand the long-term force of total opposition to US manoeuvres in Syria, then Turkish MP Metin Kulunk is absolutely correct: the US will eventually face a new Vietnam in Syria, because they continue to forget the lessons of 1975″.
If Turkey, Syria, Russia and Iran can carefully agree upon what constitutes a Kurdish terrorist and what constitutes a ‘moderate Kurd’, the Astana group may be in a position to leave the US effectively stranded on the Kurdish question, in the same way that military cooperation between Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, left the US and their jihadist proxies without any hope, any game plan and any meaningful place to topple the Syrian government as they had intended to do. In reality this would not even necessarily include so-called ‘Kurdish autonomy’, but merely an understanding that Damascus is willing, as it has been for decades, to give Kurds the same constitutional liberties as it gives to Arabs, Druz, Assyrians and Turkomen in Syria, so long as they agree to disarm and engage in normal legal relations with their legitimate government.
The successful format that Syria’s allies used to stop Washington’s ‘jihad express’ could now be realistically implemented to stop the US from using Kurdish terrorism for their own sinister designs on Syria. This time however, as the united front would be between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria, the US would be even more isolated than before and as a result events could move even more rapidly.