We see the staged handshakes in front of national flags, and read the official communiqués, but the life and death deals made behind closed doors we can only guess at. What was negotiated between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? How have the dynamics been impacted by the war in Ukraine? And what possibilities may have been opened for cooperation between Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad? Circumstances have conspired to ensure that both Putin and Erdoğan have a lot to offer the other, and both are practised at driving a bargain. International negotiation is always about self-interest, and in this case that didn’t even need to be dressed up in the hypocritical language of liberal democracy.
It seems that Putin has not conceded to Erdoğan’s demand that Russia allow Turkey free reign to carry out another invasion, but that Russia is happy for Turkey to continue shelling border villages and carrying out targeted assassinations on leading figures in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Putin and Erdoğan have a shared interest in weakening the Autonomous Administration, but Russia does not want to see Turkey take control of more territory. Rather, they hope that Turkey will work with the Syrian regime.
To make sense of what is happening, it is necessary to look at the involvement and ambitions of the different forces acting in the region.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria
Followers of Kurdish news will be aware that the Autonomous Administration strives to organise the areas under its overall control according to the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan. Crucially, this means emphasising freedom for women and respect for different ethnicities, along with a bottom-up democracy that allows decisions to be made as locally as possible. Contrary to the impression given in many commentaries, they are not demanding independence from Syria. They envisage a future as part of a more democratic Syria, for which they offer their experience as a model.
The Syrian Government
Syria’s President Assad, however, is not interested in democracy. He is intent on restoring the whole of the country to the dictatorial control that existed in 2011, prior to the uprising of Syria’s delayed, and brutally crushed, Arab Spring. Russia’s intervention in support of their long-term ally has allowed Assad to believe that he can achieve this turning back of the clock without making concessions.
Before the Syrian Civil War provided the opportunity for Syrian Kurds to take autonomous control of Kurdish majority areas and establish what would become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, they faced serious discrimination that deprived them of basic citizenship rights and outlawed teaching in Kurdish. In an interview with Amberin Zaman for Al-Monitor, Saleh Muslim, who is co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which dominates the politics of the Autonomous Administration, explained that in Syrian-Government-controlled areas, the authorities still behave as in 2011. There are no Kurdish language courses allowed in Damascus. Saleh Muslim claims that the Russians have long known what the Autonomous Administration is looking for, and have said that they will try and persuade the Syrian regime to negotiate, but nothing has happened. Assad has not proved open to such discussions. Turkish threats have forced the Autonomous Administration to welcome new Syrian army bases into their area, but, according to Saleh Muslim, discussions between the Administration and the government remain focussed only on military defence and are based on the ceasefire agreement made in 2019 following Turkey’s last major invasion.
Russia was invited into Syria by the Syrian Government – a point they like to stress because it gives their presence a legal legitimacy even though that government is widely hated. Syria has been part of the Russian sphere of influence since Soviet times, and the Russian intervention turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in Assad’s favour, allowing his government to survive. For Russia, Syria is a strategic asset, allowing them a presence in a key region of the world. Russia controls the airspace over the western part of the Autonomous Administration and has military bases at strategic border areas in the western part, too.
Iran also supports the Syrian government and has used this support to increase its own influence: militarily, through linked militias; economically, through infrastructure projects; and culturally, through funding Shia institutions in places such as western Deir ez Zor. Iran generally regards Turkey as a competitor whose influence should be restricted, though they will work together against Kurdish guerrillas. In the talks between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the Iranians will have argued against a further Turkish invasion.
The United States
The United States initially sought to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war by supporting and arming what they described as the “moderate” opposition. These groups, whose current incarnations are now supported by Turkey, proved unreliable partners as well as far from moderate in their ideology and actions. It was the rise of ISIS that pushed the US to support the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which were the only force giving effective resistance. America has shown no hesitation in supporting their NATO ally, Turkey, in its brutal war against the PKK – including providing arms used in indiscriminate attacks on Kurdish villages within Turkey and, in 1999, masterminding Öcalan’s abduction from the Greek embassy in Kenya and handing him over to Turkey. But they have found themselves in a military alliance with a group that follows Öcalan’s ideas and that Turkey refuses to distinguish from the PKK. Despite working closely with their partners in the YPG, and with the other components that now make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States is clear that the purpose of this alliance is to fight ISIS and not to defend the Autonomous Administration more generally. They have done nothing to promote international recognition of the Autonomous Administration, or even to give it a seat at international discussions on the future of Syria, where the so-called “moderate opposition” is given representation. The US controls the airspace over the eastern part of the Autonomous Administration and still maintains a force of around 900 soldiers there. The Russians and Americans keep in contact with each other so as not to trigger an accidental attack.
Turkey supports the Islamist opposition groups that emerged from the Syrian Civil War. The Turkish government also allowed their country to become a conduit for foreign fighters wanting to join ISIS, and has been accused of giving ISIS practical support. Turkey has carried out three invasions into Syria and occupies large parts of the north and northwest. Their first invasion was calculated to prevent the possibility of the Kurds and their allies winning control of the entire border area. The other two invasions – in Afrîn and in the strip linking Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî – took over land that was part of the Autonomous Administration. The Afrîn invasion was given the green light by Russia in exchange for Turkey returning Ghouta to the Syrian government, and the last invasion was okayed by the United States under Donald Trump. Turkey has used the Islamist militias as ground troops for these invasions and for the day-to-day running of the captured territories, creating regimes of extreme violence and lawlessness. Erdoğan is determined not only to make it impossible for the Kurdish dominated area to maintain any sort of autonomy, but also to cleanse it of its Kurdish population. The destruction of the Kurds has become the driver of their Syria policy. Much of the original population left the occupied areas to escape the anticipated violence, and they have been replaced by Islamist militia families and, increasingly, by refugees from other parts of Syria who had escaped to Turkey and are now being forcibly – and illegally – deported. This policy also addresses Turkey’s refugee “problem” and is seen as an election winner.
Turkey wants control over a 30km strip across the north of Syria, and has announced their readiness for another invasion; but Russia, which has bases in the area threatened, and which controls the airspace above, has not been persuaded to agree to this plan – neither at the meeting between Russia, Turkey, and Iran that took place in Tehran in July, nor at the bilateral meeting between Turkey and Russia a week ago. Russia’s Syrian Government clients are, of course, strongly opposed to Turkey gaining control over more of the country, and their Iranian allies oppose this too. However, destabilising the Autonomous Administration is something that all these parties could agree on, and Turkey has been left free to do just that.
Turkey’s low-level war
Turkey’s 2019 invasion ended with ceasefires agreed under the auspices of The United States and Russia, who are meant to act as guarantors; but every day these ceasefires are broken by Turkey and its mercenary militias, either with shelling or with drone attacks or both, and Turkey has been left free to do this. On Wednesday, Rojava Network reported that, since the beginning of 2022, Turkish attacks in Syria have killed 40 members of the SDF and 22 civilians; and Rojava Information Centre reports that this month has already proved the deadliest for Turkish drone attacks this year. The SDF do not have the weapons needed to stop drone attacks, and the ceasefire agreements restrict their possibilities for action; but they cannot be expected not to respond, and on Thursday they announced that in “legitimate defense and retaliation” they had carried out three operations, killing 23 Turkish soldiers and destroying three Turkish armoured vehicles.
Neither the US nor Russia wants to attempt to enforce the ceasefire and risk annoying Turkey, which has been playing the competing powers off against each other for years; and, for Putin and Assad, this undercutting of the Autonomous Administration’s ability to create a secure alternative to the government regime is only to be welcomed
Meanwhile Turkish invasion threats have provided the Syrian government with an opportunity to deploy their forces in the threatened regions without having to make any concessions to the Autonomous Administration, which needs all the help it can get.
Reconciling Turkey and Syria?
The Russian hope is that Turkey can be persuaded to drop its opposition to the Syrian regime, and that the Turkish and Syrian governments could then work together to eliminate all attempts at autonomy. This scenario appeared to move a step closer on Thursday, when Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu, stressed the importance of reconciliation between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government, and admitted to having met his Syrian counterpart briefly last October.
This reconciliation has been a matter of public debate for some time, and Cavuşoğlu had stated in a television interview on 27 July – a week after the Tehran meeting – that “Turkey will give all political support to the Syrian regime to expel the terrorists,” meaning the SDF. However, it might not be so easily achieved. Turkey may have been able to persuade the opposition militias to divert their attacks onto the Autonomous Administration, but that is a very different matter from making peace with the enemy against whom you define your existence. Attacking the Autonomous Administration provided opportunities for increased power, while making peace with Damascus means giving up power and all that they have gained.
Cavuşoğlu’s remarks were met by evening protests in cities across the occupied areas. Images shared on Twitter showed crowds of men destroying Turkish flags and other symbols of the occupation and even turning their anger against Turkish military vehicles. Walls were graffitied with “down with Turkey and down with the regime”. It was reported that Turkish soldiers in Azaz opened fire on the protestors, killing a child, and injuring many others. There were also protests in Idlib, which is largely controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, but is under Turkish protection; and one of the opposition militias immediately stated its rejection of the reconciliation plan. There were further demonstrations on Friday.
When, after last week’s meeting, Putin and Erdoğan “confirmed their determination to act in solidarity and coordination in the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria”, the significance of what was being said depended on what is considered a terrorist organisation, and here the two leaders do not agree. For Erdoğan, the terrorists are the Kurds, and Cavuşoğlu stated in his 27 July interview that the Syrian regime has the right to “cleanse its land of terrorists.” For Putin, however, it is the Islamist militias that are regarded as terrorists, while the SDF is attacked for collaborating with US imperialists.
An economic win-win
All this is happening with the background of the Ukraine war and of the impending Turkish election, which must take place by next June. Erdoğan is desperate to hold onto power, despite presiding over an economic crisis that has left a large proportion of Turks struggling. He thrives on high-risk opportunistic diplomacy, and Ukraine has afforded him even greater opportunity to exploit Turkey’s strategic geography and reap the benefits of being a NATO member that also maintains good relations with Russia. (This has been made easier for him by the failure of other countries to make any credible attempts to promote negotiation between the protagonists.)
War in Ukraine has increased the bonds between Turkey and Russia, and the two countries have found new ways to help each other. Agreements made last week are the latest development in an evolving economic system that is allowing Russia and Russians to avoid some of the impacts of sanctions while giving the Turkish economy a “lifeline” through foreign investment. It has even been suggested that Russia could make further financial concessions in order to help keep their friend Erdoğan in power.
What can be done?
In such a situation, it is hard to know what the people of North and East Syria can do to help ensure the survival both of themselves and of the system they are trying to establish. There is a tendency for commentators in the west to look towards the US-led coalition, but the coalition has neither the ability nor the will to help. Their latest statement, in response to local concerns about military activity, condemns “actions by third party actors”, and again fails even to name Turkey. So, can the Autonomous Administration convince Russia that a compromise deal with themselves is a safer bet for future stability? Can they persuade them that some concessions to local democracy and human rights might enable the Syrian government to work with the SDF to end the threat from the Islamist militias and ISIS cells, and so create the unified Syria that they aspire to? There are so many factors at work here that it is impossible to tell. A lot would depend on internal Turkish politics, including whether Erdoğan was able to present any deal made as a vote-winning victory. And, as has been said many times, no real long-term security and peace is possible so long as the Kurdish question in Turkey remains unaddressed.
I have spent so long looking at these international deals that there is not really space to look at anything else, but there are a few news stories that shouldn’t be missed. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) increasingly acts as a surrogate of the Turkish government, and the Regional Government recently met with a delegation from Turkey’s security and intelligence services, there have been worsening concerns over the crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights. The Community Peacemaker Teams have documented the arrests of 34 journalists and media workers between 1 and 7 of August in the cities of Slemani, Hewlêr, and Duhok, with many of those arrested reporting ill treatment and being made to sign unknown documents. And there are serious fears for the health of the 52 prisoners from Behdinan who have been on hunger strike in Hewlêr jail since 22 July in protest at the prosecutor’s refusal to grant them their right to conditional release. Villagers in the Behdinan region are also facing an embargo on the food they can bring into their homes in case they might supply surplus to the PKK.
There is international concern that Sweden has bowed to Turkish pressure in agreeing to an extradition. The demand for this extradition was submitted last year, before Turkish extortion in response to Sweden’s application for NATO membership, and the accusations are not, ostensibly, terrorist related, but any extradition to such a corrupt judiciary must be questionable.
There is a long hard struggle ahead, but, if any group is prepared for this, the Kurds are. This week they celebrated the release from prison of the writer Mizgîn Ronak, locked away thirty years ago, when she was only nineteen, for being a “member of a terrorist organisation”. In a brief speech, she dedicated her freedom to those who had died in the struggle for freedom and democracy, and she told those who came to welcome her, “so long as one of our friends is in prison, freedom is not complete.”