US erodes Russia-Turkey axis in Syria

(Turkish tank convoy moving to Syrian border, Jan 14.)

Through the past month since US President Donald Trump tweeted his fateful decision to withdraw troops from Syria, a familiar pattern began appearing – no sooner than Trump makes a foreign-policy decision, those around him scramble to try to delay that decision.

However, in the Syrian case, signs are that the delay suits Trump. The visit by US Senator Lindsey Graham to Ankara on Friday and his meeting with President Recep Erdogan most certainly had Trump’s blessing. Graham had a lengthy discussion with Trump recently to persuade the latter to take a hard look at the Syrian withdrawal decision.

Graham used to be the best buddy of late Sen. John McCain (an inveterate Russophobe) and a maverick who broke party stereotypes and was among the loudest Republican critics of the president, but today he’s perceived as a leading Trump ally.

Most certainly, Graham undertook the mission to Ankara on behalf of Trump. The Turks understood this and he was well received by President Recep Erdogan. He also had meetings with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Only last week, Turks had cold-shouldered US National Security Advisor John Bolton. (Erdogan refused to receive Bolton.)

Again, on other parallel tracks, diplomats and military officials are engaging in intensive discussions. Notably, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yaşar Güler met chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford in Brussels on January 16. A US-Turkey Working Group meeting at deputy foreign minister level is planned for February 5 in Washington, which will be followed by a ministerial conference on the ISIS on February 6, which Cavusoglu is attending.

The situation relating to northern Syria is in focus. Ankara wants the US to vacate its occupation gradually and methodically after handing over its bases to Turkish military and removing the weaponry brought into Syria to equip Kurdish fighters. But a new template has appeared with the recent expression of support by Trump to Erdogan’s 2013 proposal to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria along the Turkish border, which will be 32 kilometre wide to begin with. The US and Turkish generals exchanged views in this regard at their meeting in Brussels.

Turkey wants to be in control of the “safe zone” (which will be larger in territory than Lebanon) with the US enforcing a “no-fly zone” over it. The former CIA chief and defence secretary Leon Pantetta has floated an idea that the two countries should also establish a base of action in the “safe zone” in order to ensure that “Syria goes in the right direction.”

(Map released by Anadolu agency, Ankara, Jan 16, 2019) 

All of this comes as a dream-come-true for Erdogan – Turkey being catapulted back as the charioteer of the US’ Syrian strategies. But in reality, Washington may be undermining the Turkey-Russia convergence on northern Syria.

Fault lines have appeared. Russia has underscored that the areas vacated by the US should come under the control of Syrian government. In fact, Moscow is actively mediating between Damascus and the Kurds on this issue. (Kurds also reject any Turkish military presence in northern Syria.)

Moscow and Damascus altogether reject he notion of a “safe zone” under control of foreign powers on Syrian territory. They also demand an unconditional and total US withdrawal from Syria. Furthermore, they urge Turkey that the priority today is to clear the northwestern Idlib province of extremist groups. In an assessment by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Turkey not only failed to fulfill its commitments in this regard but couldn’t prevent around 70 percent of Idlib falling under control of al-Qaeda affiliates, who have now begun to threaten Russian and Syrian forces in nearby regions. But the security situation Idlib has become a low priority for Turkey, since the extremist groups in that province are largely its proxies.

Moscow is very discreet in publicly questioning the Turkish intentions in Syria. But Erdogan is traveling to Russia to meet President Putin on January 23. Moscow made a mistake of mixing up Russian commercial interests in the Turkish market with Erdogan’s Syria policies, which the Turkish leader leverages. Now, the US is also whetting Turkish territorial ambitions in northern Syria (which used to be under the Ottomans).

Fundamentally, the US interest lies in resuscitating the US-Turkey partnership as NATO allies. Turkey’s return to the alliance would have profound implications for the American strategy against Russia. Thus, a US “technical team” visited Ankara this week for further talks on Turkey jettisoning its deal for S-400 missile system from Russia. The US has made a counter-offer of the Patriot missile defence system to Turkey, which it had earlier refused.

Putin can be expected to work on Erdogan’s inherent skepticism regarding the dependability of the US in fulfilling pledges and commitments. Indeed, Putin has given a long rope to Erdogan to maneuver as the emergent crisis in Idlib shows. Russia expects that Erdogan will think twice before embarking on a risky military expedition deep into hostile territory inside Syria ignoring opposition from Moscow and Damascus.

The big question is, if the push comes to shove and Erdogan bandwagons with the US, will that provoke an all-out Russian-Syrian military offensive to liberate Idlib from the al-Qaeda groups and keep the Eastern Mediterranean coast out of reach for the “safe zone”? Moscow has been hinting lately about Plan B in Idlib.

Of course, Moscow has to carefully weigh the consequences of a military offensive on Idlib. The known unknown is how Washington will react. Besides, an all-out attack on Idlib will directly impact Turkey’s security interests and annoy Erdogan.

Russia has huge business interests in Turkey. Also, storm clouds are gathering over the Black Sea and the Caucasus and the Ukraine situation remains tense. And the NATO is lurching toward the region. Without doubt, Turkey’s cooperation becomes vital for Russia.

As for Erdogan, Putin has been an impeccable partner who has gone the extra league to accommodate Turkish security interests in Syria, while Turkey has no good friends left in the region when it comes to the Syrian conflict.

Suffice to say, Trump has done a smart thing by firing up Erdogan’s pet “Ottoman vision”. Trump expects Erdogan him to behave like a man possessed. A “safe zone” with US security guarantee will enable Washington to play back into the Syrian political process and ensure that “Syria goes in the right direction,” as Panetta put it. All in all, Trump has shifted the goal post for the Russians.