What could Kurds possibly gain from the “secret” negotiations between Ankara and Damascus, as lethal Turkish drone and artillery strikes continue targeting Kurdish inhabitants, including children and elderly, in the autonomous settlements across North and East Syria?
Is there a chance that the talks pave the way for a new window of opportunity opening to the international recognition of the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” (AANES) and the reconstruction of Syria as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi religious, democratic country?
Or will the present stalemate between the great powers – the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran and Turkey and all their proxies – continue to extend in time and space, dragging all its uncertainties with it into the limbo between a full-scale war and a disrespected and fragile truce?
Or, could Syria “return to larger-scale fighting” as Paulo Pinheiro the chair of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic said during a press statement ahead of a discussion of the commission’s report at the 51st regular session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“Today, Syrians face increasing and intolerable hardships, living among the ruins of this lengthy conflict,” Pinheiro told journalists. “Millions are suffering and dying in displacement camps, while resources are becoming scarcer and donor fatigue is rising. Syria cannot afford a return to larger-scale fighting.”
“But that is where it may be heading,” he warned.
And the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic is already very severe, as the commission’s report sets out, with “grave violations of fundamental human rights” in government-controlled areas; systematic use of sometimes lethal torture and enforced disappearances; and appalling conditions in displacement camps in the north-west forcing refugees to return home to areas where “active hostilities and indiscriminate attacks against civilians have claimed countless lives”.
Meanwhile, in the north-east, “fighting continued with frequent mutual bombings by Turkish and Turkish-backed forces and by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The attack on Al-Sina’a prison, the biggest military operation by Da’esh since its territorial defeat in 2019, caused hundreds of deaths. The worsening conditions for some 37,000 children in the Al-Hol and Rawj camps were exacerbated by an increase in the number of murders and recurring armed clashes.”
This “dire situation for Syrian civilians was compounded by the worst economic and humanitarian crisis the country has faced since start of conflict,” the report said. “The Syrian Arab Republic is still not a safe place to return to.”
Throughout the first half of 2022, the period which the report summarised, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was shuttling from Sochi to Tehran and Moscow to get a green light for the next massive onslaught on AANES-controlled areas, while Turkish and Syrian spy chiefs secretly bargained their stakes.
Syria’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious population has paid the price since 2011 for an illegitimate and miscalculated US-backed proxy war of regime change in order to realign forces in the Middle East.
Syria’s plight stems not only from the ruthless autocracy of the Assad regime but also from the inevitable consequences of a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection to replace the regime with an Islamic dictatorship, which has apparently been encouraged by the United States without any constructive political programme or reliable leadership, never mind any political calculation of a possible outcome.
Thus, the Western military support channelled through Turkey’s borders to the “opposition” – its backbone, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), mostly comprising defectors from the Syrian armed forces and recruits affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood – inevitably ended up in the hands of ruthless and illegitimate jihadist reactionaries while the so called “moderates” decayed into al Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) at lightning speed.
In the 11th year of the ensuing carnage, the ISIS invasion of large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory has been finally defeated by the heroic Kurdish resistance in cooperation with the UN-sponsored international alliance, mainly under US CENTCOM in North and East Syria. The bloc of Islamic “opposition” factions has been repelled by Damascus regime forces with massive Russian military and economic support and cornered in the Idlib province along with some 3 million civilians. And through its bloody incursions of 2016–19, Turkey, with US and Russian consent, has occupied and driven FSA wedges into at least 1,000 settlements throughout areas with a majority or large population of Kurds, including the cities and towns of Êfrîn (Afrin), Al-Bab, Azaz, Jarābulus (Jerablus), Jindirês (Jendires), Reco (Reğu), Girê Spî (Tel Abyad) and Serê Kaniye (Ras al-Ain). The extent of occupied lands covers an area spanning 8,835 sq km.
Meanwhile Turkey, which harbours at least 3 million Syrian refugees, has seen a surge in xenophobic and ultra-nationalist rhetoric since 2017, as it spirals down through its worst economic and financial crisis in 30 years.
Against this historical and political background, it is likely that the questions raised about reported talks between Syrian and Turkish officials stem from factual evidence rather than speculation.
It is already established fact that Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials have continued communication even during times of sharp conflict, and recently focused on endeavours to prepare favourable ground to relaunch diplomatic relations on ministerial levels. Diplomatic figures from Ankara and Damascus have recently voiced “optimistic” and “constructive” yet “prudent” messages against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict which Turkey initially plunged into seeking “regime change” in Syria.
Damascus is ready to improve relations with Ankara, but under several conditions, said Butrus Marzhan, head of the international committee of the Syrian parliament, in a recent statement to Russia’s highly circulated daily Izvestia during his visit to Moscow.
“First of all, Turkey must admit that it is occupying foreign lands, harbouring terrorist gangs classified as such by a UN Security Council resolution. In addition, Turkey must be ready to withdraw from the Syrian lands under occupation, and then yes, Syria will be ready to improve relations,” the Syrian parliamentarian stressed.
“[…] then Syria is also ready to improve its relations with Ankara. But for now, the obstacles that I mentioned remain, and they are fundamental,” he added.
He neither confirmed nor denied the meeting of the heads of the Syrian and Turkish intelligence services, but said contact had been made “in the field of security.”
The “contacts”, Marzhan said, “can be used to fight terrorism, because Turkey is also suffering from this … these contacts may mean that we have common interests in the fight against some terrorist gangs hiding in Turkey.”
Nevertheless, in an earlier undenied article in August, pro-government daily Türkiye reported that Turkey had listed five demands to Damascus including the “complete removal” of the Kurdish-led People’s Defence Units (YPG) from Syrian territory and the safe return of millions of Syrian refugees harboured in Turkey.
The daily also reported that Damascus forwarded certain demands in turn: The transfer of control over Idlib, the Reyhanli-Cilvegözü and Kesep border checkpoints, as well as the trade corridor between Cilvegözü and Damascus, the M-4 highway between Deir-ez-Zor and Hasekê to Damascus. Additionally, Syria reportedly demanded “Ankara’s support for the lifting of US and EU sanctions.”
According to Yashar Niyazbayev, an analyst for the Russian Telegram channel Turkish Agenda, the reported “positive developments” between Ankara and Damascus are a reality.
“The rapprochement began after Erdoğan’s visit to Sochi in early August, when he told reporters on the plane that Vladimir Putin urged him not to conduct a military operation in northern Syria, but to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad.” Niyazbayev told Izvestia. “There were positive signals from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu too.”
Niyazbayev relates Erdoğan’s search for a rapprochement with Syria as an attempt to relieve himself from the burden of millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and to negate Kurdish self-rule in Northern Syria, particularly in the areas adjacent to the 900 km long Turkey-Syria border, which is seen as an existential threat by the Turkish establishment.
The Russian analyst is of the opinion that “the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey negatively affect the chances of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan in the forthcoming general elections” due to surging xenophobic and nationalist discontent in Turkey that threatens to gnaw into Erdoğan’s presumed power base.
Nevertheless, given the complexity of the circumstances surrounding the military, social and political situation in Idlib, it is highly unlikely that a visible change will occur in the province’s present status in the short run. Turkish foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu had to revise his original “unconditional offer” of talks with Damascus upon the imminent jihadist reaction across Idlib to what was seen as Turkish “treachery.”
This has left Ankara in a fine balance between its own perceived interests, those of its jihadist proxies in Syria, and the position of Damascus and, crucially, Moscow, which we will discuss in tomorrow’s article.