This article was published in Arab News on January 27, 2019.
Putin’s intervention could inspire Turkey-Syria rapprochement
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Moscow last week for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. A surprise statement made in the press conference at the end of the summit opened up a new horizon for the resumption of Ankara-Damascus contacts, which have been cut off for more than eight years.
One of the questions during the press conference was on the leaders’ assessment of the safe zone that Turkey and the US were negotiating to create in the northeast of Syria. The first comment came from Erdogan, who said Ankara and Washington had agreed on the creation of a safe zone of about 32 kilometers along the Turkish border. He did not elaborate further.
While the details of the Turkey-US agreement on this subject were still unclear, Putin, in his answer to the same question, made a remark that surprised many in the audience and pushed the Turkish-American plan for a safe zone into further uncertainty. However, the same remark may open a new door in Turkish-Syrian relations. Putin began his statement by saying that the presence of US troops in Syria was illegal in the first place, since they were not invited by the Syrian government. He then made a surprise reference to an old accord signed between Turkey and Syria, the Adana agreement of 1998.
In the 1990s, Turkey had ample evidence that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist terrorist organization, was supported by Syria and its leader Abdullah Ocalan was being sheltered in Damascus. When the PKK intensified its attacks on Turkish security forces, originating from Syria, the commander of Turkey’s Land Forces went to Antakya, the border city with Syria, and said: “If Syria does not stop its support for the PKK, Turkey will take all measures that it deems appropriate.”
Both Turkey and Syria consider the emergence of a Kurdish entity in the north of Syria a threat to their territorial integrity.
Upon these remarks, Syria agreed to start negotiations and ultimately signed an agreement with Turkey in Adana. This became a turning point in the decades-old strained relations between the two countries. With this agreement, Syria consented to cooperate with Turkey in the fight against PKK terrorism and also agreed to expel Ocalan.
After his expulsion from Syria, Ocalan went to Moscow, where Putin had recently been appointed as the head of the Federal Security Service. Therefore, it is not surprising for Putin to remember the Adana agreement that led to Ocalan’s trip to Moscow. He may also have contributed to the Russian authorities’ decision to expel Ocalan from Russia to Italy. He then went from Rome to Athens and was eventually captured in the Greek Embassy in Nairobi, where he was residing under a fake name.
Therefore, Putin recalled the Adana agreement when an opportunity arose in the Moscow summit to look for options other than setting up a safe zone in Syria through Turkey-US cooperation.
Erdogan, on his way back from Moscow, told journalists that Turkey might use the Adana agreement to justify a military operation in Syria, even though neither the original nor a 2019 update to the agreement contained any provision to that effect.
Putin may have had other considerations in mind when he referred to the Adana agreement. First, he may have wished to prevent Turkey from carrying out a new military operation in Syria. Second, he may have wished to prevent the creation of a safe zone by Turkey and the US that would have given Russia little or no role. Third, he may have wished to encourage Turkey and Syria to cooperate because they have converging interests in opposing Kurdish aspirations. Both Turkey and Syria consider the emergence of a Kurdish entity in the north of Syria a threat to their territorial integrity. Russia may have thought that such cooperation may also lead to the smoothing of relations between them. Fourth, he may have wished to drive a wedge between two NATO allies — Turkey and the US.
The first comment from Damascus on Putin’s reference to Adana came on Saturday, with a spokesperson saying: “The Turkish regime should commit to the agreement and stop supporting, arming, financing and training terrorists and should withdraw its military forces from the Syrian areas it occupies so that the two countries can activate the agreement that ensures the security and safety of their border.” This statement suggests that Syria is not closed to cooperation with Turkey if the above-mentioned conditions are met.
Whatever Putin’s original intention, his reference to the Adana agreement may ultimately become a turning point in Turkey’s relations with Syria.