Deconstructing Putin-Erdogan MOU on Syria; this is how it looks.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) held talks in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2019 

The talks between the presidents of Russia and Turkey — Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan — at Sochi on October 22 relating to the Syrian question lasted close to seven hours and reportedly involved “difficult” negotiations. The two statesmen wore sombre looks at their joint media briefing and didn’t take questions. 

Most of the conversation was one-on-one and the Memorandum of Understanding, which the two statesmen signed, does not fully reflect the outcome. Not everything can be put down in writing in such uncertain times, especially given their highly personalised style of diplomacy during the past four-year period since the Russian intervention in Syria.

It’s no secret that the two countries have divergent interests and specific concerns and contrarian priorities in the Syrian conflict. The MOU speaks for itself. Evidently, there has been a lot of give and take.

To recap, Russia recognises that Turkey has legitimate security concerns over the presence of terrorist groups in the Syrian border regions with Turkey. But Russia also regards the Turkish incursion as an infringement on Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Again, Russia disapproved of the concept of a “safe zone” being created by Turkey on Syrian territory. Russia supports the Assad regime’s aspiration to to regain control of entire Syria. 

However, the MOU signals that Putin and Erdogan have reconciled the seemingly insurmountable contradictions through an ingenious approach of revival of the Adana Agreement of 1998, which allows Turkey to make limited incursions into Syrian territory to counter terrorist threats but puts the main responsibility for border security on Damascus by preventing access to terrorist groups. Of course, conditions on the ground are vastly different from what existed twenty years ago and today, Ankara and Damascus have no official relations. 

Thus, Russia has stepped in as facilitator. This translates on the ground in complex ways with the burden of the security of the entire north-eastern Syrian-Turkish border (from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border) to be jointly shouldered by Russia independently with Turkey as well as with Syria in back-to-back arrangements. 

The MOU says that the Kurdish fighters will have 150 hours starting at noon on October 23 to pull back 30 kilometres from the entire northeastern border. The Russian and Syrian forces will ensure compliance. When the deadline expires on October 29, joint Russian-Turkish patrolling will begin along a 10 kilometre wide stretch of the border. 

Russia has agreed that Turkey will retain sole control of the swathe of land 120 kilometres wide and 30 kilometres deep between the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn that it captured in the current operation known as Operation Peace Spring which began on October 9. 

An understanding appears to have been reached at Sochi that Turkey will not proceed further with Peace Spring. It means, in principle, that the vast tracts of northeast Syria, which are being vacated by the US forces, and the Turkish-Syrian border to the east from Ras al-Ayn right up to the Iraqi border may come under Syrian control and patrolled jointly by Syrian forces with assistance from Russian military. But, a caveat must be added also that the US intentions still remain obscure.

Plainly put, Syria regains control over a considerable stretch of the border with Turkey, which is a good thing, but the flip side is that Damascus has to learn to live with the Turkish control of 3600 square kilometres of its territory between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border (which is equivalent of a quarter of Lebanon’s size) occupied under the rubric of Peace Spring as well as the large tracts of Syrian territories to the west of the Euphrates from the border town of Jarabulus all the way to Idlib province near the Mediterranean coast, which Turkey captured in its first and second operations codenamed Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch respectively in recent years and is keeping in its control. 

In sum, something like two-thirds of Syrian border regions (stretching from Idlib in the west to Ras al-Ayn in the east de facto are under Turkish control at present. 

No doubt, this is a bitter pill to swallow for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who vowed on Tuesday to support any “popular resistance” against Turkey’s invasion “to expel the invader sooner or later.” An embittered Assad told Syrian troops during a visit to Idlib frontline (even as Putin was receiving Erdogan in Sochi), “Erdogan is a thief. He stole factories and the wheat and the oil in cooperation with Daesh (ISIS) and now is stealing the land.”  

Assad is in no position to defy Putin, who phoned him up after the talks with Erdogan, and Moscow has since claimed that Damascus is on board the MOU. But this cannot be the end of the story. 

Why did Putin blink? One plausible explanation could be that he felt it tactically important to get Erdogan to somehow prevent an escalation of Turkish military operations (Peace Spring) at this juncture and to get him to accept the Adana Agreement as the cornerstone of border security. 

After all, if Erdogan keeps affirming support for Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, Turkey cannot indefinitely occupy such large areas of Syrian territories. But the catch is, this also happens to be disputed border regions of Syria-Turkey historically where Damascus has alleged that Turkey acted against the stipulations of the French Mandate of Syria (1923) in the years following Syria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire after World War I, to occupy what is presently Turkey’s Hatay province.

Another explanation would be that Russia hopes that once a Syrian settlement takes shape, continued Turkish occupation will anyway become untenable. But the danger is, this may turn out to be an underestimation of Turkish irredentism. 

Possibly, Moscow could be counting that Erdogan has burnt his bridges badly with the West, which makes him dependent on Russia’s goodwill. And, indeed, Turkey’s estrangement with the US has opened a window of opportunity that Russia will not fail to exploit. 

The surprising part is that Putin has accepted Erdogan’s concept of “safe zone” and has pledged to make joint efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees. Russia had previously decried the very notion of “safe zone” on Syrian territory. 

The most plausible explanation would be that Putin sensed that Erdogan is stubborn about keeping the Syrian territories that have been captured in the current and previous military operations, no matter what it takes, while remaining open to reaching an understanding that Turkish military will not purse Peace Spring any further. 

This is smart thinking on Erdogan’s part, as control of the territories that have been captured is worth the price of not expanding the scope of Peace Spring, which in any case badly isolates Turkey in the international opinion. 

Essentially, therefore, the deal in Sochi is that while Turkish forces will patrol areas closest to the border (10 km deep into Syria) jointly with the Russian forces, Operation Spring will be restricted to the limited areas between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, 32 km deep into Syrian territory, and the sectors of the border from Kobani to Tel Abyad and from Ras al-Ayn to the Iraqi border will be controlled by the Syrian forces, supported by Russian military police.

Without doubt, Erdogan is the winner here. He has vanquished the Kurdish fighters from the border and scotched their dream of homeland in Syria. Russia has committed to help him in this regard. And at the same time, Turkey exclusively controls almost two-thirds of Syria’s northern border, which gives Erdogan a commanding voice in dictating the terms of any eventual Syrian settlement.