On 28th December 2016, the day before the Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministries communicated their ceasefire plan to the UN Secretary General and to the UN Security Council, a report appeared in Reuters which claimed that Russia and Turkey have come to a private understanding to divide Syria into “zones of influence”.
Supposedly this also involves the ultimate removal from power of Syrian President Assad, though supposedly Iran has not agreed to this.
The relevant paragraphs in the Reuters report read as follows
Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.
Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad’s Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia’s thinking say…..
Assad’s powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate.
Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family.
Careful reading of the report shows that the “sources” it refers to are almost entirely Turkish. The only Russian source appears to be Andrey Kortunov, a well known Russian academic and commentator on international affairs, who is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, and who is also connected to the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
Though Kortunov is a serious scholar he is not an official of the Russian government, and the extent to which he is familiar with the details of the negotiations that have been going on between the Russian and Turkish governments must be open to doubt.
Talk about a federal structure for Syria may have its origin in a proposal some Russian officials are known to have made for a possible ‘federal solution’ for Syria’s Kurdish problem. I discussed this proposed ‘federal solution’ involving the Kurds on 25th October 2016, and pointed out that it is not properly speaking a federal solution at all, but rather
…..the sort of arrangement that exists within Russia, where areas like Tatarstan are recognised to have a distinct ethnic identity, and where special provisions are made to recognise and accommodate this fact.
As it happens the Syrian government has flatly rejected this proposal, and though the Kurds appear to be still pushing it, it is far from clear that there is any life still left in it.
The Reuters piece suggests it is Turkey that is currently pushing the federalisation proposal. If so then it is most unlikely Turkey would want such a ‘federal solution’ for Syria’s Kurds, especially if (as would almost certainly be the case) its effect was to entrench the anti-Turkish YPG in power in Syria’s Kurdish areas along the Turkish border. Since it is however very difficult to see how a ‘federal solution’ for Syria could work without the Kurds, that in itself is a good reason for doubting that the Turkish calls for a ‘federal solution’ for Syria are intended seriously.
The fundamental difficulty the ‘federal solution’ anyway faces is that outside the Kurdish areas there is practically no support for it in Syria.
The Syria war is often described as a sectarian war between an Alawite dominated Syrian regime drawing its support from Syria’s minority communities, who are mainly to be found in the populous coastal regions of western Syria, and Syria’s Sunni majority, which accounts for almost the whole of the population of Syria’s central and eastern regions. The ‘federal solution’ idea is for Syria to be divided into three parts on ethnic and sectarian lines, with an Alawite dominated region in western Syria along the coast, a Kurdish area in the north, and a Sunni region in the vast though thinly populated regions of Syria’s interior in the centre and east
Syrians I have spoken to have however told me that this conception of Syria is wrong. Syria is not divided along sectarian lines. The great majority of Syrians identify themselves first and foremost as Arabs and Syrians irrespective of whatever might be their personal religious faith. It is a mistake to assume that the violent Wahhabi/Salafi sectarianism that has been imported into Syria in the last few years, and which is the driving force of the war, and the marginally less violent Sunni sectarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood which preceded it, are representative of the attitudes of most Syrians.
Since the majority of Syrians oppose being divided on sectarian lines, carving up Syria into a federation along such lines has no support and makes no sense. As it happens all opinion surveys which have taken place in Syria since the start of the war show that the great majority of Syrians (over 70%) want their country to remain united.
In summary, the federal proposal has no obvious attractions and little to no prospect of success, so it is difficult to see why the Russians, whose interest is in maintaining a united Syria, would want to support it.
As it happens the main supporters of the ‘federal solution’ for Syria have until recently been certain hardliners in the US, who having given up hope of achieving regime change in Syria, have instead been quietly lobbying for the creation of a pro-US Sunni client state in Syria’s central and eastern regions. The very fact this supposed ‘federal solution’ to Syria’s crisis has had some US backing is however a good reason to doubt the Russians are interested in it.
If the ‘federal solution’ has no attraction to the Russians, and has almost certainly not been agreed by them, why are the Turks talking about it?
The reason is almost certainly connected to internal Turkish politics.
The fundamental problem the Turkish government faces is that having committed itself so wholeheartedly and so publicly to the regime change project in Syria, it is now faced with the prospect of its total failure.
Not only must that be very difficult for some Turkish officials to accept, but there must be many people in Turkey who would see that as a defeat. In a few cases some might even see it not just as a defeat but as a betrayal.
In the circumstances it is not surprising if some Turkish officials are busy reassuring the Turkish public – and one suspects in part themselves – that it is all really just part of some cunning plan to carve up Syria into “zones of influence” with Russia, preserving Turkey’s influence in Syria, whilst getting President Assad to stand down.
The fact that there is total silence about any of this from Moscow is the best possible reason for doubting that any of it is true. Why anyway would the Russians, after the defeat of the Jihadis in Aleppo, agree to any of this?
It is actually most unlikely the Russians would agreed to any of these Turkish ideas, and the Turks must privately know they won’t. Doing so would completely contradict longstanding Russian policy, which is that these are all issues the Syrians must decide for themselves in talks between them, and that they have nothing to do with Russia.
If the Russians consistently refused to change this policy under US pressure, why would they do it to please the Turks?
The only agreement the Russians are known to have made with the Turks is the one that was communicated by the Russians and the Turks to the UN Security Council on 29th December 2016.
That agreement makes no reference to Syria being carved up into “zones of influence: or into any sort of federal structure. Nor does it say anything about President Assad standing down.
There are no grounds to speculate on any further Russian-Turkish agreements for Syria, including agreements about Syria’s division into “zones of influence” or its federalisation or about President Assad’s eventual removal, and it is a virtual certainty that no such agreements, informal or otherwise, exist.