Smashing “Political Correctness” In The War On Syria
The international media was hit with a bombshell earlier today when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that his government no longer considers Damascus as a “threat”, thereby opening the door for a possible rapprochement between these once-close partners. The announcement comes less than 24 hours after President Putin traveled to Turkey to meet with President Erdogan, implying that Moscow had some role in convincing Ankara over the necessity in making this statement. After all, President Putin’s whirlwind three-country tour of the Mideast yesterday was largely designed to pave the way for next year’s “Syrian National Dialogue Congress”, the Russian leader’s personal initiative to bring about a “political solution” to the War on Syria.
Keeping in line with President Putin’s active diplomacy in laying the groundwork for this landmark event next year, it’s reasonable to presume that he did indeed convince his Turkish counterpart to publicly announce what keen observers were already well aware of ever since the failed pro-American coup attempt last summer and especially following the January commencement of the Astana peace process, namely that Ankara no longer has any real issues with Damascus. Of course, it was difficult for Turkey to openly admit this over the past 18 months due to domestic and international political reasons, but all the same, this “open secret” is now officially public knowledge. By making such an overture towards Syria, Turkey – likely in coordination with Russia – is now implicitly pressuring Damascus to reciprocate in taking the next step by legally accepting the presence of Turkish military forces in the “de-escalation zones” (DEZs).
The Chain Of “Compromises”
In accordance with Russia’s presumed plans for promoting a “political solution”, Syria absolutely has to “compromise” in accepting the Turkish troops that are active on its territory because they were deployed there as part of the Astana peace process. It’s possible that Damascus already held this position in secret, but just like Turkey, it was reluctant to express itself publicly for domestic and international political reasons, as well as to “save face” before both audiences just like Turkey was trying to do. Now, however, it will be increasingly difficult for Syria to keep this a secret because Turkey’s announcement pressures it to go public in return and therefore advance President Putin’s peacemaking vision. If successful, then there’s a chance that the same model could be applied to the US forces in northeastern Syria if Washington ever officially accepts that President Assad can remain in office until the country’s next presidential elections in 2021, which is what unconfirmed sources are reporting that Trump is ready to “compromise” on.
It shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that these reports are only now just emerging one day after President Putin’s Mideast tour, since not only are they a reaction to this move, but they could have even been secretly coordinated with Russia per a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the Russian and American leaders may have clinched during their last personal meeting on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Vietnam. One should keep in mind that Russia is the most active and efficient mediating (or “balancing”) partner in Syria and the Greater Mideast right now, and in line with President Putin’s previous statement during the Sochi Summit with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts last month that all sides must “compromise”, it’s possible that he may have convinced the US of the need to accept the obvious fact that President Assad still solidly remains in office. In exchange for this superficial volte-face (as it was long ago presumed to be part of American calculations since the Russian intervention began), Syria could “compromise” by accepting the presence of American troops in the northeast.
The diplomatic deal-making spree that Russia convincingly seems to be on was catalyzed by its own decision to “compromise” in ordering the withdrawal of most of its Aerospace Forces from Syria, as it was this move which kicked into motion the preplanned statement given by the Turkish Foreign Minister a day afterwards and the news reports about the Trump Administration’s “compromise” (which could be interpreted as being in response to Russia’s). All of this is fine and dandy, so to speak, except that one actor is attempting to exploit the situation for its own advantage and inadvertently jeopardize this very delicate dance that Russia has begun with all parties, and the problem comes down to what the Turkish Foreign Minister misleadingly implied in his bombshell statement about Syria.
Overlooked by most commentators, Sputnik importantly reported that Turkey’s chief diplomat “has clarified that [his] country will coordinate an operation against Syria’s Kurds with Russia if it is necessary (and that) the minister explained that Turkey does not oppose the Kurds’ participation in the Syrian peace settlement, adding that the country has handed Russia a list of Kurdish forces it was ready to work with.” There are two parts to this passage that need to be analyzed separately before they can be understood together. About the first one, it’s unclear if President Putin did indeed consider a joint anti-Kurdish operation with Turkey, but the Foreign Minister is suggesting as much because of the presumption that his speech was prompted by the Russian leader’s meeting with President Erdogan yesterday evening. Turkey is masterfully attempting to utilize perception management techniques in order to put maximum pressure on its PYD-YPG Syrian Kurdish enemies by making it seem as though Russia is read to “backstab” them.
Nothing of the sort seems to be in the cards, however, as the author explained in his analysis last week about the evolving relations between Russia and the Syrian Kurds, but Turkey wants to sow distrust between these two parties in order to weaken the position of his foes and therefore allow them to be replaced by their Kurdish National Council (KNC) rivals. This group is originally from northeastern Syria but was driven out by the PYD-YPG Syrian Kurds and is now thought to be based in southern Turkey. The author wrote back in March how Ankara is training this pro-Turkish militia to take over the self-proclaimed region of “Rojava” in the event that an anti-“federalist” successor mission to “Operation Euphrates Shield” is ever launched. Though the speculative military campaign never transpired (at least not yet), it now appears as though Turkey is trying to win Russia’s ear in having Moscow host the KNC instead of the PYD in the forthcoming “Syrian National Dialogue Congress”.
Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s twisting of the truth in hinting that Russia is planning an anti-Kurdish operation alongside Turkey is designed to get the PYD to concede into allowing the KNC to return to their homeland and enter into a political coalition with it, which could be the “face-saving” “compromise” that Turkey needs to have happen in order to accept the “decentralization” of northeastern Syria. There doesn’t seem to be any other way that Turkey would allow the PYD to remain in power there except if they reconciled with the KNC and had their new “partners” go to Astana and Sochi on their behalf. Anything less than that would be understood as an egregious affront to President Erdogan and a violation of the red line that he had sworn to his countrymen that he would protect, but at the same time, Ankara probably isn’t going to risk becoming the “global bad guy” by invading northeastern Syria, expelling the PYD-YPG, and being responsible for destroying President Putin’s personal peacemaking initiative there.
The Law Of Unintended Consequences
That being said, the unintended consequence of Cavusoglu including his provocative statement about allegedly coordinating an anti-Kurdish operation with Russia in northeastern Syria in the same context as announcing his government’s change of policy towards Damascus, which itself came less than a full day after President Putin’s visit and is widely assumed to have been brought about by his personal diplomatic intervention, is that Moscow’s Mideast mediation efforts might fail if Ankara succeeds in driving a wedge between the Syrian Kurds and Russia. Moscow needs this group to behave constructively during this very sensitive time in transitioning the War on Syria from its fading military phase to the future political one, and if they or their US patrons come to believe that Russia isn’t “trustworthy” due to the Turkish Foreign Minister’s twisting of the truth, then they might get “cold feet” and refuse to continue with this process.
To that end, it’s necessary for Russia to reassure its two partners behind closed doors and convey to them the self-interested reasons why Ankara alleged that such an operation is supposedly being considered. Some points in favor of Russia’s position is that it has already demonstrated that it has no desire whatsoever to directly confront the US in Syria and risk entering into a dangerous spiral that could lead to a nuclear standoff, which could inevitably happen if the 2000 US troops in the region and their 10 or so bases there come under threat in the course of a joint Russian-Turkish anti-Kurdish operation. In addition, Russia’s large-scale withdrawal of its Aerospace Forces signifies that it doesn’t intend to provide any significant in-field support to its allies anytime soon, further negating the Foreign Minister’s words to the contrary.
Finally, the most reassuring move that Russia could make right now to its American and Kurdish partners is for it to convince President Assad to reciprocate Turkey’s outreach but also extend it to the aforementioned two actors in order to strengthen the chain of “compromises” and make the upcoming “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” a success. That, however, might not be possible except under the condition of enormous pressure being put on President Assad, as he would essentially be backtracking on his government’s previous statements on the topics of uninvited foreign military forces in his country and “decentralization”, possibly representing a “bridge too far” for even for Russia to attempt to cross and potentially setting into motion the very same “law of unintended consequences” that it so desperately seeks to avoid.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.