This article was published in Arab News on September 22, 2019.
Do Putin and Erdogan agree on Syrian sovereignty?
The three guarantors of the Astana/Sochi process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — last week held their fifth summit in Ankara. Several aspects of the Syrian crisis were discussed, the most important being the security situation in Idlib, the area to the east of the Euphrates, and the constitutional process. On other issues, the leaders re-emphasized the areas where there was a convergence of views and kept silent on areas where they did not agree.
This article will focus on the question of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It has to be admitted that the leaders never failed to emphasize their support for this, but two points require a closer look. One is whether Turkey’s perception of Syria’s sovereignty is identical to that of the two other guarantors. The other is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks on this subject.
Each time the question of Syria’s sovereignty is raised, Turkey joins Russia and Iran in reconfirming its support for it. This is what happened again during last week’s summit, as the joint communique emphasized the strong commitment of the leaders to the preservation of Syria’s sovereignty.
One paragraph in the communique focused on the northeast of Syria. It read: “The heads of states… emphasized that the security and stability of this region can be secured only on the basis of respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and agreed to coordinate their efforts to that effect.”
Another paragraph was even more specific, saying: “(The leaders) rejected all initiatives to create new reality in the field under the pretext of fighting against terror, including the establishment of illegitimate self-rule, and expressed their resolve to stand against separatist agendas aiming at weakening Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and threatening the national security of the neighboring countries.”
While Turkey undertook such commitments in the joint communique, it also frequently repeats that it will launch a military operation in the northeast of Syria if an agreement cannot be reached with the US on the establishment of safe zones along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Furthermore, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced several times that he wants to build houses in northeast Syria for the Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and other countries. The idea is attractive but, if Syria’s sovereignty is to be observed, such initiatives would require the Syrian authorities’ consent.
Turkey frequently repeats that it will launch a military operation in the northeast of Syria if an agreement cannot be reached with the US
Turkey partly justifies this proposal by pointing to its right to protect its borders from incursions by the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it accuses of having strong links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization listed as such in EU and NATO countries. So Turkey perceives threat from the YPG. Putin agreed that this perception was justified and that Ankara had legitimate rights to secure its borders.
Turkey’s approach to Syria’s sovereignty in Idlib manifests itself in a slightly different form. What is at stake in Idlib is its national interest and not national security. A massive flow of refugees toward the Turkish border would harm Turkey’s national interests.
The second point worth analyzing is Putin’s position. There is a shade of meaning between what Putin said three weeks ago in Moscow and what he said last week on the same subject. Three weeks ago, he said: “The setting up of a safe zone on the southern borders of Turkey is a positive move for Syria’s territorial integrity.” He may have meant that, if safe zones are set up, the US-supported Kurds will not be able to carve out a Kurdish entity in the northeast of the country, therefore better preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. He then complemented this statement with another sentence about Turkey’s border security, when he said: “We understand very well Turkey’s sensitivity. It has to secure its borders. This is Turkey’s legitimate right.”
Last week, in the press conference after the trilateral Ankara summit, Putin brought further clarification to his position, saying: “All countries in the region, including Turkey, are entitled to take appropriate measures to self-defense and the protection of their national interests and borders. Erdogan never rejected Syria’s territorial integrity. On the contrary, he strongly supports this and we all support it. We presume that Syria’s territorial integrity will be entirely guaranteed as soon as security is established and the fight against terror will be over. This includes the withdrawal of all foreign military units from Syria,” which also means the withdrawal of Turkish forces.
Putin’s additional clarification raises the question of whether his position is identical to that of Erdogan. If it is not, this difference will come back to the agenda sooner or later.