President Vladimir Putin ordered the partial withdrawal of the Russian troops from Syria during his flash visit on Monday, December 11. Russia has always been an important player, but since a few years it has become the major game-maker in Syria, writes Yaşar Yakış, former Foreign Minister of Turkey.
As the year 2017 comes to a close, it may be appropriate to make a retrospective assessment of the year and forecast for the next year.
Russia played a crucial role in reversing the deteriorating situation in Syria. It tried to persuade some opposition factions to participate in the Geneva process. The process was thus saved from crumbling. The de-confliction practice that Russia initiated in the Astana process proved to be the most concrete mechanism to help ease tension in various conflict zones. It is difficult to tell whether the process will be successful all the way through, but it is the mechanism that has the best chance of success.
Russia has always been an important player, but since a few years it has become the major game-maker in Syria.
Participation of Turkey in the Astana process and becoming one of the guarantors of the de-confliction exercise helped Ankara to adjust its Syria policy to the reality in the field. It started to play a positive role in the Syrian crisis by assuming the responsibility of observing the ceasefire in Idlib. Turkey has a legitimate worry about the neighbouring Kurdish canton of Afrin. Therefore, it is more focused on what is taking place in Afrin than in Idlib, but so far it is fulfilling its task according to the terms of reference. This cooperation with Russia brought Turkey one step closer to the Russian orbit.
Russia’s role in Syria is likely to grow in 2018, first because, now that ISIS is crippled to a large extent, transition process to democracy may gain momentum. Russia’s fight against ISIS was the most genuine one, together with Iran. Since the most substantive contribution to the process is made by Russia, its role will gain more visibility.
Second, the Astana process is the most promising initiative in the solution of the Syrian crisis. The leading country in the process is Russia. Turkey and Iran are regional countries that have important stakes in the crisis. The de-confliction exercise initiated in the Astana process may be used in the future to de-escalate tension in other areas as the normalisation process will unfold. Russia’s leadership role will be needed in this process.
Third, the Kurdish issue may become more visible as the normalisation in Syria will progress. Both Russia and the U.S. have close relations with Kurds. These two superpowers have to find a mutually agreed solution to the Kurdish issue together with Damascus and Ankara. Turkey’s main worry is to prevent Kurds from changing the ethnic composition of the areas under their control. Ankara and Damascus have converging interests on this subject. Russia’s positive contribution to it will be important.
Fourth, US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a paradigm change in the Middle East and in the Islamic world. It also caused reaction by the Pope Francis and many Western leaders. The decision may cause new disturbances in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Russia may step in to defuse the tension.
Fifth, the areas rich in oil and water resources are re-taken from ISIS by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are supported by the U.S. and dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, Democratic Union Party (PYD). This question may become one of the thorniest issue in the transition to democracy. Russia may contribute to the solution of this question.
Sixth, only Russia and Iran has a legitimate military presence on the Syrian soil, because they are invited by the Syrian authorities. Turkey and the U.S. have to withdraw their forces after the crisis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has underlined the ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ of Syria in the press conference after the trilateral Sochi Summit of 22 November 2017. This has to be understood as Turkey’s commitment to withdraw from Syria when the situation is normalised and PYD/YPG acquiesce to the policy of keeping unchanged the ethnic composition in the areas under their control.
As a whole, Russia’s role as game maker is likely to further increase in Syria in 2018.