Date: 20 October 2019

Balancing Between Putin and Trump: Erdogan Plays Up Syrian Conflict

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is building up his strong independent position in the Syrian war theatre. While the first stage of the Turkish offensive into Syria, codenamed Operation Peace Spring, succeeded, Ankara will suffer no repercussions from the United States. In exchange, Turkey agreed to a ceasefire, a five-day period that is set to expire on the day of a meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. What will happen next depends on the outcome of the summit. Erdogan’s deal with the United States bolster his position, but the Turkish leader will have no ambition to confront Moscow. It is most likely for some binding arrangements to be made during the Sochi meeting, solutions that will please Ankara, albeit in the short term.


Addressing members of Germany’s lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on October 17 that Turkey’s incursion in northern Syria boosts the role of Russia across the region. Turkey and its allied Syrian fighters launched on October 9 an armed offensive in a bid to push the mainly-Kurdish YPG militia out of a border area in the middle of the Syrian-Turkey border and to create a “safe zone” where Ankara would relocate Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey. What paved the way for the Turkish incursion was the U.S. retreat from Syria, though Washington had been a former U.S. ally in the region. Left with no choice, the Kurds needed to find an alternative as soon as possible. Under an October 13 deal, al-Assad’s loyal army has begun sweeping into the country’s northern regions. The Syrian government forces need to face the offensive from Turkey.

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On October 17, Turkey greenlighted a ceasefire in northern Syria to let Kurdish-led forces withdraw. Erdogan warned that if they failed to retreat, Turkey would destroy their units. After U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Turkey’s President met for talks in Ankara, the former said that Ankara gave its nod for a ceasefire in Syria and the United States would lift economic sanctions imposed on Turkey. Ankara, for its part, will not be obliged to pull its troops out of Syria, a step that is de facto equivalent to U.S. permission for Ankara to occupy the safe zone. The U.S.-Turkish deal was an unpleasant surprise for Russia that hoped to see the Washington-Ankara crisis deepening further and further. On the same day, Erdogan met Pence for talks, and his representatives received in Ankara a senior Russian delegation whose members were Russia’s special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and the accompanying representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry. Ahead of their arrival in Ankara, the senior Russian officials were in Tehran to hold talks with Ali-Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security, and Ali-Asghar Khaji, a senior assistant to Iran’s Foreign Minister in political affairs. After visiting Turkey, the Russian delegation headed to the Syrian capital of Damascus. In a statement issued after the meeting with al-Assad’s team, attention should be drawn to the provision that long-term stabilization of the territories to the east of the Euphrates River lies through the return of all these lands to the control of the government in Damascus. Moscow favors the restoration of Syria’s territorial integrity, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told on October 17. “This means that all national territories, including the border with Turkey, must ultimately be placed under the control of the legitimate Syrian government,” Zakharova stressed.

Her statement may come in an effort to bolster Moscow’s negotiating power a few days ahead of the meeting between Putin and Erdogan. Both leaders will meet on October 22 in the Russian resort town of Sochi. Erdogan said for his part that he would discuss the deployment of Syrian government forces along the planned “buffer zone.” What stands out as a leading problem are tensions running high over an open conflict with the Turkish troops and their allies on the side, and the Syrian government army on the other, as the latter is occupying part of the former Kurdish outposts. When in Sochi, Putin and Erdogan are to discuss what steps should be taken next. High on the agenda will also be the status of major cities, with Kobane and Manbij at the helm. Erdogan has already declared that if he fails to make a deal with Moscow, his country will continue to do what it has started. He has reason to be confident; militarily, so far, the operation has gone well while he has managed to strike a deal with the Americans.

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