This article was published in Arab News on August 11, 2019.
Moscow and Ankara at odds over Syrian crisis
Support for Syria’s independence, unity and territorial integrity underpinned the 13th round of negotiations last week in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, now renamed Nur-Sultan. The iteration of this obvious but also relevant principle will become all the more important as the Syrian crisis moves toward resolution.
A communique after the meeting expressed satisfaction with the progress achieved in the finalization of the composition and the rules and procedures of the committee that will be set up to draft a constitution for Syria.
The constitutional committee will be composed of 150 members, 50 each from the government, opposition and civil society. People familiar with the process believe the list could be finalized soon. Each of these groups of 50 will elect a smaller group of 15 representatives to represent them in the 45-member committee to draft the constitution, which will be submitted for the approval of the full 150-member committee. None of this would have been possible without the painstaking efforts of the three guarantor powers of the Astana process — Turkey, Russia and Iran. After the 150-member constitutional committee approves the draft constitution, the Geneva process, under UN auspices, will organize a constitutional referendum and transparent elections to be closely monitored by international observers.
The second important issue at the Astana meeting was northeastern Syria, an important region for Turkey because of Kurdish autonomist activities. The final communique said sustainable security and stability could be achieved in northeastern Syria“only on the basis of respect for the sovereignty and territorial unity of Syria and respect for the national security of the neighboring countries; and rejected all separatist attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of counterterrorism.”
Moscow not only refrains from opposing the Syrian government’s shelling, but also supports them either by providing air cover or by participating in the bombing with its own fighter aircraft
This wording sends a strong message to the Kurds and to the US, which supports the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) with arms, ammunition, equipment and training. After having persuaded the other guarantors of the Astana process, Turkey is now eagerly engaged in setting up a safe zone along its Syrian border, together with the US.
The third important issue was Idlib. This is probably the toughest issue, especially between Turkey and Russia. The final communique said the guarantors highlighted joint efforts to prevent cease-fire violations in Idlib, underlining that the fight will continue against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, Daesh and Al-Nusra Front. “The parties expressed grief over civilian casualties and decided to take concrete measures to protect military personnel of the guarantor countries as well as the civilian population,” it said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry, in a press release issued on the occasion of the Astana meeting, referred to this subject in the following words: “Turkey has expressed grave concern over the regime’s deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure under the pretext of combating terrorism and has stressed its expectation that these attacks must cease immediately.”
Turkey complains to Russia about the Assad regime shelling various targets in Idlib. Russia duly takes note of these complaints, but it is unclear whether it takes any action on them. Russia’s approach to this shelling is far from being similar to that of Turkey. Moscow not only refrains from opposing the Syrian government’s shelling, but also supports them either by providing air cover or by participating in the bombing with its own fighter aircraft.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Special Syria Coordinator Alexander Lavrentiev said that almost 90 percent of Idlib was under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and not moderate opposition, and that HTS was not likely to stop attacking the government forces. “We cannot allow a terrorist organisation to turn Idlib into a calm place where it holds three million people hostage,” he said.
Another Russian military officer, Maj. Gen. Alexei Bakin, head of the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria, went one step farther and explained the Russian position in clearer words: “We expect the Turkish side to fully implement the Sochi agreements within 24 hours in response to the Syrian initiative, providing the withdrawal of militants and weapons from the demilitarized zone and the cessation of attacks.” The Syrian government resumed military operations two days after this statement.
Both of these statements coincided with the Astana meeting, and barely conceal the difference between Moscow’s and Ankara’s approach to the problem. Whether Turkey and Russia will be able to find a middle ground is not yet clear. If they cannot, the Astana process risks becoming a lame duck.