Astana Peace Talks, Syrian refugees and Turkish new military operation

The ruins of Azaz in Syria (Credits: Christiaan Triebert, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 13
Author: Silvia Boltuc

On June 15th, 2022, the 18th international meeting of Astana Peace Talks kicked off in Nur Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. As guarantor countries, delegations from Russia, Turkey and Iran (which launched the Astana peace process in January 2017) will meet the Syrian government and opposition forces during the two-day talks.

Turkish Foreign Ministry’s director-general responsible for Syria, Ambassador Selcuk Unal, represents Ankara. The Moscow delegation will be headed by Russia’s Presidential Envoy for Syria, Alexandr Lavrentyev, while a senior aide to Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Ali Asghar Khaji, will represent Tehran.[1] A United Nations delegation led by Robert Dunn, principal political affairs officer of the Special Envoy for Syria, a Jordanian delegation, representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross will also attend the meeting as observers.

Since 2011, the civil war in Syria has exposed the country to a severe humanitarian crisis. Different issues are on the discussion’s agenda: the conditions for the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, the humanitarian and socio-economic conditions, the work of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva, confidence-building measures, the release of hostages and the search for missing persons.

Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria

One of the most controversial topics that will be discussed is the announced new Turkish military operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to take control of the city of Kobane, which Syrian Kurds currently occupy, and create a buffer zone of 30 km. Erdogan said Ankara intends to exterminate terrorist groups in northern Syria and establish control over the cities of Tall Rifat and Manbij.

The operation follows the cross-border military operation led by Turkish forces in the north of Iraq called “Castle of Claws”, conducted, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, to prevent terrorist attacks by contrasting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters. The Iraqi central government had condemned the intervention as a violation of its territorial sovereignty, warning Turkey of the consequences of such policies. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement, released a statement reacting to the operation, affirming that Iraqi leadership would not remain silent if Turkey repeated the bombing. Although PKK attacks inside Turkey have decreased, Ankara wants to be sure that their activity will not consolidate outside the country’s border and maybe cooperate with the People’s Defence Units (YPG) group, which is active in northern Syria.[2]

On May 26th, 2022, the Turkish Security Council of civilian and military leaders endorsed the plans for the new cross-border incursion in Syria. Their final goal is to drive out the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters supported by the United States but considered terrorists by Turkey. The operation revived the plan, which in October 2021 failed to get a green light from Russia and the United States.

Turkish President recently announced the return of more than one million Syrian refugees out of the 3.6 million currently hosted by Turkey. Two hundred thousand homes will be built in safe zones located near the border.[3] The severe economic crisis that hit Ankara might push the Turkish population to look favourably on the repatriation of refugees and thus provide Erdogan with popular support for his military operation, which more realistically aims to take control of the 458-kilometre strip of land between the Afrin region conquered by the Turks in 2018, and the city of Kamisli, where the Russian army has an air base. Furthermore, the upcoming presidential election worries the Turkish President, whose consensus is decreasing among the Turkish electorate. Erdogan is counting on reviving nationalist sentiment by contrasting terrorism, restoring the country’s economy, taking refugees out of the country and increasing Turkey’s regional power.

With Euphrates Shield and Peace Spring operations, Turkey took several northern strategic areas and the M4 highway under its control. The city of Kobane is a high valuated target as it is where the United States first came to help the Syrian Kurds fight against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. The 112-day siege proved to be the turning point in US’s commitment to fighting in Syria.[4] US President Joe Biden, which already called Turkey’s actions, especially its military operations against the Kurds in northeastern Syria, a threat to US national interests in 2021, renewed its concerns after Erdogan announced a new offensive. State Department spokesman Ned Price told the US government is

“deeply concerned about reports and discussions of potential increased military activity in northern Syria and, in particular, its impact on the civilian population. We condemn any escalation, supporting the maintenance of the current ceasefire lines”.[5]

In 2017, the guarantor countries of the truce in Syria (Turkey, Russia, Iran) adopted a joint declaration outlining the creation of de-escalation zones in the country. According to the Memorandum, Idlib withdrew to the zone of responsibility of Turkey. Nevertheless, local conflicts continued on the demarcation line.[6]

In October 2019, Ankara and Moscow adopted a Memorandum of Understanding. The document, in particular, provides for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the Syrian-Turkish border and joint Russian-Turkish patrolling to a depth of 10 km from it to the west and east of the area of the Turkish operation “Source of Peace”, except for the city of Qamishli.[7]

The moment chosen by Turkey to launch this new operation is not accidental. Ankara wants to take advantage of the Russian commitment on the Ukrainian front to expand its influence in Syria. The two countries have maintained a balance within the country until now, but Moscow did not like the recent announcement of a new offensive and Russia and Syrian government forces have been bolstered in northern Syria. The special presidential representative for the Syrian Settlement Alexander Lavrentyev told to Russian media agencies that:

“Ankara’s special operation in northern Syria will lead to an escalation of tensions in the region. Moscow considers this an unreasonable step that could destabilise the situation, escalate tension, and a new round of armed confrontation in this country”.

According to Lavrentyev, at the talks in Nur-Sultan, Russia will call on its Turkish colleagues to refrain from this step. The President’s special representative added that the settlement of the conflict in Syria remains a priority of Russia’s foreign policy.

“Many now say that Russia’s attention to Syria has weakened in connection with the special military operation in Ukraine. Several European countries want to see the development of the situation in Syria according to their own patterns. I want to say that the Syrian settlement remains a priority of Russian foreign policy. And if someone has such plans, then they will not wait. We will continue to provide all assistance to the Syrian people”.

At the same time, he accused the United States of “predatory activities” in northeast Syria under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State. The Syrian Foreign Ministry considered the actions of the Turkish President a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Conclusions

Considering Russia’s hugely involvement in Ukraine, Ankara perceived the moment as favourable to conduct a new military operation in Syria. Turkey is likely to expect a green light on its operation from the Russian side in exchange for its veto on the Finland and Sweden accession to NATO and as a consequence of Turkey not joining sanctions imposed on Moscow. Erdogan is likely to believe that the United States will support his manoeuvre in exchange for the prospect of NATO enlargement and countering Russian influence in Syria.

Contrary to Turkish expectations, Russian representatives already stressed that Moscow would not give up its regional allies and that the issue would be addressed in the ongoing Astana Talks. The Kremlin’s concerns were still growing since the Turkish decision to close the country’s airspace until July to Russian civilian and military planes carrying troops in Syria. Turkish airspace offers the easiest route for Russian planes supplying its military bases in Syria, and this might have been a coordinated strategy between Turkey and the US to cut off Russian supply routes to the country. On the other side, the planned military operation aimed at areas held by Washington-backed Kurds caused concerns also for the United States and did not fit with the US national interest.

Sources

[1] Meiramgul Kussainova (2022) Astana peace talks to discuss return of Syrian refugees, Anadolu Agency. Link: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/astana-peace-talks-to-discuss-return-of-syrian-refugees/2613583.

[2] Silvia Boltuc (2022) Turkey started a military operation in northern Iraq in connection with gas pipelines, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/04/21/turkey-iraq-military-operation/.

[3] Alarabiya News (2022) Turkey aims for one million refugees to return to Syria. Link: https://english.alarabiya.net/News/middle-east/2022/05/03/Turkey-aims-for-one-million-refugees-to-return-to-Syria.

[4] Rebecca Grant (2018) The Siege of Kobani, AirForce Magazine. Link: https://www.airforcemag.com/article/the-siege-of-kobani/.

[5] Kurd Press (2021) Biden strongly blames Turkey military operations in Syria Kurdish-controlled regions. Link: https://kurdpress.com/en/news/1540/Biden-strongly-blames-Turkey-military-operations-in-Syria-Kurdish-controlled-regions/.

France 24 (2022) US warns Turkey against new Syria offensive. Link: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220524-us-warns-turkey-against-new-syria-offensive.

[6] Assel Satubaldina (2017) Final de-escalation zone established as Syrian talks end in Astana, Astana Times. Link: https://astanatimes.com/2017/09/final-de-escalation-zone-established-as-syrian-talks-end-in-astana/.

[7] Tv7 Israel News (2019) Turkey & Russia adopt joint memorandum on northern Syria. Link: https://www.tv7israelnews.com/turkey-russia-adopt-joint-memorandum-on-northern-syria/.