Although Turkish and Russian troops are now conducting joint patrols in northern Syria, a number of serious questions about this arrangement remain unanswered. While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are in the process of withdrawing from some strategic locations, they leave behind the asayesh—Kurdish internal security forces—with whom Bashar al-Assad’s regime is willing to cooperate. Such arrangements will hardly assuage Ankara and may lead to an escalation of violence.
New developments on the ground reveal that the Russia-Turkey deal may have been based on different interpretations of the road map. The joint Russian-Turkish declaration in Sochi, Russia, stated that both parties “reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement” and that Russia will “facilitate the implementation” of the agreement for now. It was not secret that Moscow has long been insisting on Ankara’s recognition of the Adana Agreement, signed in 1998 by Turkey and Syria, as a reference point for all sides. Although Turkey has now accepted the agreement, skepticism persists in Ankara. Only a day after the Sochi deal, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavasoğlu stated that the Assad regime has “no capacity” to implement the Adana Agreement. For Ankara, the “capacity” to implement the deal would mean blocking YPG mobilization in northern Syria. Turkey wants assurance from Russia on this key issue, instead of direct negotiations with the Assad regime. Turkey’s strategy to avoid recognition of the Syrian regime, however, will be contradictory to the implementation of the Ankara-Moscow deal. Without Damascus’s consent, the Turkey-Russia joint reference to the Adana Agreement is unlikely to bear fruit.
New developments on the ground reveal that the Russia-Turkey deal may have been based on different interpretations of the road map.
The Adana Agreement: Realistically Applicable?
A brief overview of the contextual dynamics behind the Adana Agreement is important. The ties between Ankara and Damascus were too strained during the 1990s due to hydro-political problems—i.e., Turkey’s building of an enormous dam system on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate in southeastern Turkey and run through northern Syria to Iraq. The system, also known as the GAP project, was a threat to Syria’s water supply to its most critical agricultural regions, which witnessed troubling government mismanagement as well as natural droughts since then. As a response to Ankara, Damascus increased its support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Turkey-based Kurdish separatist organization that recruited many Syrian Kurds in its ranks and waged attacks against Turkish forces. In 1998, with a warning of military action, Turkey issued an ultimatum to the Syrian government to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan whom Syria had sheltered for many years. Subsequent negotiations thus led to the Adana Agreement.
The spirit of the agreement was based on a mutual understanding that both countries would refrain from engaging in activities that could threaten each other’s national security. The agreement also provided Turkey with a legal right to hunt PKK fighters up to five kilometers inside Syrian territory for short-range military operations. Upon signing the agreement, Damascus expelled Ocalan from Syria. As he visited a number of countries, he was chased by Turkish intelligence, which prevented him from finding a safe shelter; he was finally captured in Kenya and imprisoned in Turkey.
Perhaps the most critical contextual difference between the present and previous situations is that both sides now accuse each other of harboring “terrorists.” Such a dynamic was not present in the original context of the Adana Agreement. In other words, its true implementation would mean that Turkey accepts leaving the Syrian opposition to their fate in exchange for Damascus’s severing ties with the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG. As long as Ankara is willing to use opposition militias as a card against Damascus, the Assad regime’s support for PKK activities against Turkey will remain strong.
As long as Ankara is willing to use opposition militias as a card against Damascus, the Assad regime’s support for PKK activities against Turkey will remain strong.
Turkey’s disengagement from the Syrian opposition, however, is not easy. Ankara has recently united all opposition militias under the Syrian National Army umbrella to gain legitimacy and support for the military operations in northern Syria. Moreover, Ankara wants to assume a protector role in Idlib against the Assad regime’s military campaigns, which could drive millions of new refugees to Turkey. Without the opposition fighters, Turkey’s control over the Idlib complex is impossible.
Thus, under current conditions, the Adana Agreement’s implementation would mean that Turkey ends military operations—a rather unlikely scenario. The question, then, becomes: how will the Assad regime use the Kurdish card against Turkey’s operations?
The YPG Still Remains a Formidable Threat to Turkey
The Turkish government was quick to celebrate the Sochi deal as the end of the YPG/PKK era in northern Syria. Although the deal may limit the prospects of a Kurdish statelet in Syria, the YPG’s capacity to operate could remain powerful for a number of reasons.
First, Moscow did not give any promises to attack YPG forces to implement the deal. Although Turkey-Russia joint patrols should assure the YPG’s withdrawal from some strategic locations, it is the Turkey-backed forces that may need to fight against YPG fighters in disputed areas. Therefore, the deal does not usher in stability for the Turkish border regions.
Second, Russia continues to engage in a dual strategy toward the YPG, and more importantly, its engagements are directed as explicit messages to Turkey. For example, while YPG forces were retreating from towns following the Sochi Agreement, Kurdish internal security forces—the asayesh—remained in these locations. Technically not subject to the agreement, these Kurdish forces will still pose a threat to Turkey’s plans in the region. To Ankara’s displeasure, Russian forces initiated a joint patrol together with these Kurdish units in the west of Qamishli—a key border city. Moreover, Russia continues to host an office of the YPG’s political platform, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in Moscow.
Russia continues to engage in a dual strategy toward the YPG, and more importantly, its engagements are directed as explicit messages to Turkey.
Third, the recent deployment of US troops to secure oil fields in Deir Ezzor has given reassurance to the YPG leadership that the United States may help the Syrian Kurds to negotiate with Damascus from a position of strength. In fact, the Assad regime recently called soldiers of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—of which YPG is the key component—to join the Syrian army against “one enemy.” The regime also hinted that it would accept the integration of the asayesh into the government’s security agency. The SDF leadership’s response was to demand a broader political settlement “that recognizes and preserves the exclusivity of the SDF and its structure.” These developments indicate that the United States may push the Assad regime to recognize a certain level of autonomy for Syrian Kurds as a precondition for the regime’s control over the oil fields. If that happens, the YPG may remain emboldened against Turkey.
Fourth, for Turkey, the YPG’s operational capacity as a guerilla group is as significant a national security threat as a Kurdish quasi-state in northern Syria. Turkey’s hold of a territory with an organized army does not eliminate the guerilla war capacity of the YPG in the vast Syrian landscape. Hence, dealing with YPG fighters will be similar—and now connected—to dealing with Turkey’s four decades-long intractable problem with PKK guerilla attacks, which include suicide bombings and targeted killings in Turkish cities. Additionally, Turkey’s territorial control in Syria will be more difficult because it is perceived globally as an occupation army.
Finally, Turkey’s war against the YPG/PKK was also a war of narratives and the latest military development put Turkey on the losing side of the equation. The key themes of the Turkish official narrative include that the YPG/PKK does not represent Kurds and that the Turkish government is not at war with the Kurds in general. Remarkably, Ankara is now harshly protested by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, which has long been Turkey’s key partner against the PKK due to a historic rivalry between the two groups. With the international media’s heavy attention on President Donald Trump’s green light for Erdoğan and the subsequent Kurdish plight, the Turkish government has inadvertently legitimized the YPG in international platforms. For example, the invitation of the Kurdish commander, Mazlum Kobane, to the White House has led to worries among some Turkish officials that the military operation may have major unintended consequences to help the YPG’s long-term strategy.
Will Turkey Finally Get a Safe Zone for Refugees?
In order to garner domestic support and prove that the tide is turning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rushed to initiate the relocation of the first group of Syrian refugees in the areas the Turkish military recently occupied between Tal Abyad and Ras-al-Ayn, which are projected to host 405,000 Syrian refugees according to Turkish government estimates. Such implementation will not only sustain Turkish public support for the military operations but also give Russia a reassurance of Turkey’s capacity to deliver on and implement its plans. If Turkey succeeds in realizing these initial steps for a safe zone, expansion of the zone eastward toward the Qamishli region will be on Erdoğan’s agenda.
A hasty relocation of the refugees, however, may have a reverse effect. In his recent meeting with officials from the United Nations, Erdoğan requested a UN international appeal for donations to support relocation projects—estimated to cost about $26 billion. The UN’s response instead highlighted the principles of “voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees.” One day after Erdoğan’s meeting, concerns over refugee safety hit the news: a car bomb killed 13 and injured dozens of Turkey-backed forces as well as civilians in Tal Abyad—the very place Erdoğan plans to send the Syrian refugees. Turkey immediately blamed the YPG for the bombing; however, such a blame game is unlikely to dispel the anxiety among Syrian refugees, most of whom are reluctant to return under current conditions.
The dynamics of Turkey’s refugee relocation will be shaped by the developments in the Idlib region where three million civilians reside next to Turkey’s border.
In addition, the dynamics of Turkey’s refugee relocation will be shaped by the developments in the Idlib region where three million civilians reside next to Turkey’s border. The Assad regime is well aware that Idlib is Turkey’s main weakness in its relations with Russia because Ankara could not deliver on its promise to contain al-Qaeda militants in the region. There are signs that a potential Syrian regime assault may be in preparation and this could push a new wave of refugees to flee into Turkey, thus leading to turbulence in Ankara’s safe zone plans. Under such circumstances, Turkey may prioritize Idlib refugees to be relocated first to the eastern Euphrates; and it is also possible that Ankara would then be dragged into a costly quagmire in northeastern Syria.
Turkey’s Optics Problem in Washington
The Russia-Turkey deal was overshadowed by Moscow’s cooperation with Washington on a special operation to eliminate the Islamic State’s (IS) leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His killing in an area controlled by Turkey-backed forces—and only three miles from the Turkish border—has raised questions about whether Ankara already knew of Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Despite the fact that YPG leaders and Iraqi officials rushed to claim intelligence sharing with the United States, Turkey’s statements about the operation were brief and had no reference to intelligence sharing. In fact, given the increasing mistrust between the Pentagon and Turkish officials, the two sides’ cooperation over such a high-value target was unlikely.
As Turkey failed to explain why Baghdadi was living in the Turkey-controlled enclave, the Assad regime’s narrative that Turkey harbors “terrorists” is gaining traction in Washington. If it persists, such a perception would ease Damascus’s military campaign in the Idlib region. Moreover, if Baghdadi’s killing triggers a rapprochement between al-Qaeda and IS for high-scale attacks in the West, that would be a major challenge for the Turkish security infrastructure—reminiscent of cross-border dynamics a few years ago. The “Pakistanization” of Turkey is a byproduct of the Syrian war and Turkish military operations may accelerate the trend.
The Turkish government’s optics problem and the increasing divide between Ankara and Washington make Turkey vulnerable to Moscow’s whims.
The Turkish government’s optics problem and the increasing divide between Ankara and Washington make Turkey vulnerable to Moscow’s whims. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan is one of the top world leaders spending lavishly on lobbying certain groups in Washington. Nevertheless, the Turkey-Russia deal prompted a historic reaction from the American capital: a congressional resolution, passed by a wide margin (405-11), to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This was held on a highly symbolic national holiday for Turkey, the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic—thus communicating US lawmakers’ strong disapproval of Turkey’s policies in Syria.
In analyzing the trajectory of the Erdoğan-Putin deals in Syria since 2015, Henri Barkey of the Council on Foreign Relations rightly suggests that there is only one dominant entity in the relationship. Russia has continued to be the main effective force on the ground and in the machinations regarding Syria’s war. Thus, Ankara’s current tit-for-tat deal with Russia in northeastern Syria seems unlikely to break this chain and, thus, it will not help to secure Turkish interests in the long term.