The two presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are meeting to discuss their long-term strategic-economic relationship. Nevertheless, the situation in Syria and the US claimed withdrawal from the occupied northeast of the Levant is expected to occupy the greater part of their discussion. Both presidents are aware of the critical situation, particularly the US objective of setting Turkey against Russia and, at the same time, leaving the US allies, i.e. the Kurds of the YPG and SDF, in the eye of the hurricane.
There is no doubt the Kurd militants have become a burden on the US establishment. Their US allies are trying to leave them to their destiny or deliver them to their fiercest enemy, Turkey. Damascus would prefer the prodigal sons return to the arms of the central government, if the Kurds will only recognize that this may be the only way to save their lives and existence. If not, and the Kurdish militants insist on holding ground as human shields for the benefit of US forces, they will become dispensable even to Damascus.
The current US establishment is taking advantage of the presence of US forces in northeast Syria to allow ISIS to remain by the thousands in a small geographic area in the albu Kamal district east of the Euphrates. It is also trying to split the Russian-Turkish alliance by insisting on delivering the area to be abandoned to Turkish forces, whereas Russia aims to keep Syria united and to allow the Syrian army to regain control of its own territory. This shows that Washington is not willing to give up on its war in the Levant despite the total failure of its “regime change” plan. Indeed, the US establishment is trying to preserve an unstable situation in order to impede the Syrian government’s plans to rebuild Syria.
There is no doubt about Turkish ambitions in Syria. The Ottoman Empire signed the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 at the Beau Rivage hotel in Switzerland. Lausanne gave Turkey better terms than the earlier Treaty of Sèvres, but Turkey was nevertheless forced to abandon claims to vast territories in Syria and Iraq (Mosul).
Turkey claims, on the basis of an alleged secret article in the treaty, that the Lausanne treaty expires in 2023, after one hundred years. Erdogan will be then claim the right to exploit energy resources in its territorial waters. Moreover, he plans to use the treaty expiration to justify Turkey taking back territories neighboring Turkey.
It may well be that Ankara’s decision to allow ISIS and al-Qaeda to cross its borders into Syria and Iraq during the first years of war in Syria was in preparation for redrawing boundaries. Indeed, when ISIS occupied Mosul in 2014, Turkey was among the countries that called ISIS occupation of a third of Iraq a “Sunni revolution”. When Turkish diplomats were held hostage at the consulate in Mosul, Turkey negotiated their release and exchanged hostages and prisoners with the terror group. Today, Turkish soldiers are occupying Ba’shiqa in the north of Iraq, refusing to withdraw despite repeated demands from the central government in Baghdad.
In Syria, the Turkish army is present in Afrin, Idlib, al-Bab and Jarablus, and stands ready with 80,000 men to break into al-Hasaka and Raqqah provinces under the pretext of recovering the area from YPG/PKK control.
Ankara is trying to annex as much Syrian territory as possible, including over 13,000 sq. km in northeast Syria. Turkey has given many indications of its willingnes to negotiate an exchange with Russia. Erdogan allowed an al-Qaeda successor group (Hay ‘at Tahrir al-Sham) to eliminate the Noureddine Zingi group, a Syrian proxy organisation that was supported by Turkey before it began to receive financial support from Saudi Arabia. In a clever move, the Turkish president has permitted the al-Qaeda group to control Idlib and its rural area included in the Astana cease-fire. By doing so, he is creating the possibility of selling off Idlib as a bargaining chip to Russia in exchange for the “Safety zone” proposed by the US establishment.
The “buffer zone” proposed by Trump is an area with an Arab majority and a Kurdish minority, 490 km wide and 32 km long, a land mass larger than Lebanon. Trump claims that he is ready to withdraw his forces from this land for the benefit of Ankara’s forces.
Erdogan is aware the US may not withdraw right away, but takes seriously the prospect that Turkish forces, rather than the Syrian forces, may take control of the area in question. Ankara went silent on the Khashoggi murder case after the US decision to deliver the Syrian “buffer zone” to Turkey, a NATO ally. Trump is trying to keep Erdogan from Putin’s embrace.
The US establishment is exerting lot of pressure on the Arab Gulf states countries to prevent them from participating in the reconstruction of Syria and from accepting Syria back into the Arab League. It is also closing the borders between Syria and Iraq at al-Tanf to stop the growth of trade between the two countries. It is keeping its control over the northeast oil and gas rich Syrian area, thwarting the growth of the Syrian economy.
This is why Erdogan may not find it very difficult to convince Putin about his plan to exchange US for Turkish occupation, especially if the price would be the exchange of Idlib for the al-Hasaka/Raqqah area. This is not the first time the Turkish president has made such a deal. He has effectively contributed to the return of Aleppo and al-Ghouta to the hands of the Syrian army.
Notwithstanding the fact that US withdrawal is uncertain and not taken seriously by all parties operating in Syria, the creation of a “buffer zone” will not be a walk in the park. The Kurds will defend their territory but will end up abandoning their villages – as they did in Afrin – and migrating towards Syrian army-controlled area. The Kurdish militants will be the biggest losers because they are dealing with a US president who changes his mind on regular basis, sleeping on one decision and waking up on a totally different one.
Ankara needs the “buffer zone” to offer its allies in Syria who are anxious about the Trump-Erdogan deal. These groups are today expressing serious concerns about their fate. Erdogan is planning to deliver the northeast part of Syria, rich in agriculture and oil, to his proxies so they can have a piece of territory at the expense of the Kurds, the biggest losers.
Proofread by: C.G.B