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Adana protocol re-emerges as Russia, Arab align against Turkey

2019/02/12 | 22:20

(Hatha al-Youm | Iraq News)-











Micha’el Tanchum







The December 19, 2018, announcement of the US withdrawal

from northeastern Syria was heralded as Washington’s concession to Turkey’s

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, giving him a green light to eradicate the

PKK-affiliated Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). However,

Turkey’s planned intervention to create a “safe zone” in Syria east of the

Euphrates River has been complicated by the recent reconciliation of key Arab

nations, with the regime of Bashar Assad, bolstering Moscow’s opposition to

Turkey’s ambitions. This alignment weakened Erdogan’s bargaining position in

his January 23 Moscow meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and may

force Turkey to accept alternative arrangements based on the 1998 Adana

Protocol between Ankara and Damascus.  Using 2,200 Special Forces and air power, the US created a

19,700 sqm (51,000 sq km) zone of deterrence, protecting the Syrian Democratic

Forces (SDF) spearheaded by YPG fighters. When US troops depart, Ankara plans

to establish a Turkish-controlled safe zone into northeastern Syria extending

20 miles (32 km) deep and 285 miles (460 km) wide. Turkey claims that

Washington acceded to its plans, however, official statements from the Trump

administration dispute this.Moscow looks askance at Turkey’s plan, as the Kremlin’s

end-game is for Bashar Assad’s regime to regain all of Syria’s territory. The

city of Manbij has become a focal point of the Turkey-Russia jockeying, and is

to be evacuated by both the US and YPG under the Turkey-US Manbij “road map

agreement.” Turkish troops and their Syrian allies now face Russian troops

backing the Syrian government in a race to claim the city.While the trilateral Astana dialogue between Ankara, Moscow

and Tehran has thus far accommodated Turkey’s ambitions, the disappearance of

opposition to the US presence as a unifying factor in the Syria equation has

brought the divergence of interests between Turkey and the other two Astana

guarantors to the fore.On January 16, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov foreshadowed

Moscow’s opposition to the plan. “We are convinced that the best and only

solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian

government,” he stated. Obliquely referring to Turkey’s planned intervention,

Lavrov added, “We welcome and support contacts that have now begun between

Kurdish representatives and Syrian authorities so they can return to their

lives under a single government without outside interference.”Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Russia is further weakened by

Turkey’s failure to eliminate from Idlib Province the Hayat Tahrir al-Shams

(HTS) militant coalition led by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat

al-Nusra. In accordance with their September 2018 Sochi agreement, Turkey and

Russia established a jointly-monitored demilitarized zone in Idlib, preventing

Syrian and Russian Air Force attacks on Turkish troops and the forces of the

Turkish-backed National Liberation Front coalition, on condition that the NLF

under Turkey’s supervision would dislodge HTS from the buffer zone.After a 10-day HTS offensive, the defeated NLF ceded control

of all its positions to HTS on January 10, 2018, allowing Jabhat al-Nusra to

secure its hold on northern Idlib, as NLF fighters apparently had shifted their

focus to preparing for the upcoming battle of Manbij.On January 18, Lavrov expressed the Kremlin’s consternation,

“It also worries us that in Idlib, contrary to the agreements on creating the

demilitarized zone there, Jabhat al-Nusra dominates and violates the

demilitarized zone. About 70% of this territory is already occupied by

terrorists; they are trying to attack the Syrian army’s positions, settlements

and they are trying to threaten our military air base in Khmeimim.” A Syrian

government assault on Idlib backed by Russian airpower and Special Forces would

enhance the position of Damascus and Moscow in northern Syria at Turkey’s

expense.Turkey’s position has been further compromised by the rapid

reconciliation between the Assad regime and its Arab opponents, notably Egypt

and the UAE. If Saudi Arabia follows suit, the anti-Turkey alignment led by

Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi could mobilize most of the Arab nations against

Ankara’s safe-zone plan, and given Damascus’ opposition to the plan, provoke

the crystallization of a broader anti-Turkish Arab bloc.The Assad regime’s rehabilitation began with the December

16, 2018, visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. This visit,

the first by an Arab leader since Syria’s expulsion from the Arab League in

2011, signaled a wider thaw between Arab nations and the Assad regime, as it

would not have occurred without Saudi approval. The visit also revealed the

limits of Ankara’s influence over Sudan, despite Turkey’s $650 million of

development initiatives. In a telling sign, the Sudanese president traveled to

Damascus in a Russian plane. Sudan, cash-strapped and indebted to Russia, has

reportedly given concessions to Russian companies in various extractive

industries, including gold, diamonds, oil, and gas. Bashir’s Damascus visit was

partially prompted by Moscow’s eagerness to bolster the Assad regime through

renewed ties with the Arab world.A week later, Syria’s security chief, Ali Mamlouk, visited

Cairo for talks, reportedly at the invitation of Egypt’s intelligence chief.

Subsequently, Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the SDF’s political arm, informed

the press that the SDF’s Egyptian communication channels would be utilized in

negotiations with the Assad regime to try to deter a Turkish intervention.

Ahmed explained, “There have been contacts over the past few days between

Kurdish leaders and Egyptian officials so that Cairo would take part in the

mediation with Damascus.” Close military partners, Egypt and Russia are

actively cooperating to combat Turkish-sponsored Islamist groups in Libya. According to Turkey’s pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak,

Egyptian and UAE officials visited Manbij to discuss how to prevent a Turkish

takeover. On December 27, 2018, the United Arab Emirates reopened its Damascus

embassy after an eight-year hiatus. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs

Anwar Gargash explained in a tweet, “The Arab role in Syria is becoming more

necessary toward Iranian and Turkish [efforts at] territorial change in the

region. The UAE today, through its presence in Damascus, seeks to activate this

role.” Six months earlier, Abu Dhabi and Moscow had signed a Declaration of

Strategic Partnership. Hours after the UAE reopened its Damascus embassy,

Bahrain restored its diplomatic mission. Algeria, opposed to Turkey’s support

of Islamist militants in neighboring Libya, has been lobbying for Syria to be

invited the March 2019 Arab League summit.Turkey cannot enter northeastern Syria without Russia’s

tacit consent. The rapprochement between the Assad regime and Turkey’s major

Arab rivals makes obtaining that consent more difficult, and risks Turkey’s

Arab rivals supporting Kurdish forces in Syria, creating an intractable

quagmire for Turkey with significant consequences for its own Kurdish region.Seeking to preserve Ankara’s tilt toward Moscow, the Kremlin

has suggested Syrian government forces could establish Turkey’s proposed safe

zone. During the Moscow January 23 meeting with Erdogan, Putin declared that

the 1998 Adana Protocol between Ankara and Damascus was still operative. Under

the agreement, Syria closed PKK bases on its territories, imprisoned PKK

fighters, and expelled PKK head Abdullah Öcalan, resulting in his 1999 capture.

Iran joined the protocol in 2003, and might support Russia’s proposal in order

to limit cooperation between the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE bloc and Damascus. At

the next meeting of the Astana guarantors, Ankara may find itself forced to

accept a Syrian-administered safe zone based on some updated understanding of

the Adana Protocol.











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