OCTOBER 19, 2017 BASEL, SWITZERLAND—For most of the Syrian civil war, there have been two constants of Turkish policy: support for opposition forces seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, and concern about the growing strength of the Kurds in northern Syria, whom Ankara regards as a direct threat.
But Turkey has watched with alarm as its NATO ally, the United States, directly armed and increasingly supported the Syrian Kurdish forces chasing the so-called Islamic State from its northern Syrian strongholds.
So when Turkish forces sent scouts, and then troops, into the opposition-held province of Idlib this month, it fit a certain logic. The move put Turkish forces in close proximity of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, home to a Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party, whose military wing the US has armed.
In fact, the incursion into the northwestern province represents a significant shift in Turkish thinking and the even more dramatic change in the balance of power in Syria.
Amid a rapprochement with Syrian ally Russia that was long in the making, Turkey’s move is part of a so-called “de-escalation” agreement reached with Russia and another Assad ally, Iran, in the Kazakh capital of Astana in May.
That trio’s memorandum of understanding stipulates the creation of four de-escalation zones, in a move optimists hope will help reduce hostilities, facilitate humanitarian and medical access, and encourage the return of refugees.
Critics say the Astana process is entrenching fault lines and contributing to the fragmentation of the war-zone country, with each power carving out spheres of influence. The trio in September demarcated the monitoring responsibilities in Idlib province.
Under the May agreement, up to 500 Turkish monitors could be deployed in Idlib, along with the same number of Russian and Iranian forces to be stationed in areas controlled by the Syrian government and its allies.
The Astana process
According to analysts, the incursion reflects Turkey’s realization that the best avenue to protect its interests in Syria is not through conversations with Washington and other NATO capitals, but through Moscow, the dominant diplomatic and military player in Syria.
“With the Idlib operation it has become clear that Turkey is now working under the Russian umbrella in Syria,” says Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington.
Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria began in September 2015 and was instrumental in shifting the balance of power in favor of Assad, although it hasn’t put the Syrian regime in the position to assert its authority across a country that has split into multiple enclaves.
The Idlib operation fits into the Astana diplomatic process but also the broader Russian strategy of brokering local truces in Syria to reduce the violence and lock down the territorial gains made by the array of forces supporting the Syrian government.
The Russian-led Astana talks have not, for now, aimed to broker a comprehensive peace or reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict. However, by gathering the direct belligerent factions, they have succeeded in altering facts on the ground.
There have been six rounds of talks to date in the Kazakh capital, with the seventh just scheduled for Oct. 30-31.
Headwinds at Geneva
The Astana talks offer a sharp contrast to the years-long, United Nations-led diplomatic process in Geneva, and have succeeded in a way that the efforts led by a valiant series of UN envoys never could, not even in the brief moment they enjoyed high-level US support.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has consistently described the Astana and Geneva tracks as complimentary, rejecting the notion that military talks in Astana could derail the political and diplomatic process Geneva.
The talks in Switzerland started in 2012 and have been consistently hamstrung by a Syrian regime unwilling to negotiate any substantive issues, a weak and divided opposition, and low engagement by the United States.
In contrast, Astana has been more modest in its ambitions and become the go-to venue for military talks and more.
While imperfect and subject to multiple violations, local truces and de-escalation zones have been credited with reducing the overall level of violence in Syria. Astana has also helped Damascus to lock down its territorial gains and shift its forces to fight ISIS in the east.
“This is a valve that the Russians and the regime can turn on and off,” warns Paris-based Syria expert Salman Shaikh, noting the cease-fires’ temporary nature. “But it is the only thing that has contributed to some sense of movement and momentum, and that is what the UN envoy is trying to get on the back of.”
Ball is in Russia’s court
With ISIS defeated in Raqqa, observers hope that Washington and Western capitals will engage more seriously in the search for a solution to the conflict in Syria, now in its seventh year. But all say no political process will move forward before Moscow’s endorsement.
They see signs of hope in talks of an “early national dialogue” and Russia’s growing engagement with concepts such as power-sharing, separation of powers, or, simply, transition, even if it comes with the caveat of not before 2021, when Assad’s term as president expires.
Noah Bonsey, the senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, says it is impossible to determine at this stage whether the Astana talks will feed into the Geneva process. The ball, he stresses, is in Russia’s court, and much depends on its capacity to bring Damascus and Tehran on board.
“Geneva hasn’t been effective at all in shaping events on the ground,” he says, and it can’t achieve a negotiated agreement absent the “political will from the conflict’s internal and external players to negotiate something.”
The Syrian opposition is under pressure to take a more pragmatic and united approach in Geneva. Ankara, despite the occasional statement by Turkish President Recep Erdogan and other ruling party officials to the contrary, has dropped the demand for Assad to go.
Some in the Syrian opposition view the deployment of Turkish troops in Idlib as a betrayal. It was Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, rather than what is left of the moderate opposition, who reportedly escorted Turkish personnel to their posts. But they also acknowledge that there is no other game in town.
Tol says that the limits of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance will be defined by how far Tehran and Moscow will go to address Turkish concerns over the growing influence of Syrian Kurds. Tehran appears to share Ankara’s concern over growing Kurdish autonomy.
Russia, for its part, sees the Kurds as a card to be used not only against Turkey but also the US. A recent declaration by the Syrian government that it was willing to discuss autonomy with the Kurds sparked alarm in Ankara.
Can Astana help Geneva?
Mr. Bonsey cautions that while the relationship between Ankara and Tehran is working out in Astana thanks to Russia’s dominance in the process, there is still a gap between their positions and a clear rivalry for influence at play in northern Syria.
Both think Astana could help lay the foundations for greater success in Geneva, which continues in the absence of a better approach.
“The Astana process delivers military results, and a political process has to build on that,” says Tol. “Astana was Russia’s way of dictating the military terms on the ground before launching the political process.”
The analysts concur that the political process will only begin once the military facts on the ground are to the liking of Russia and the regime. The question is whether they will do so in Geneva.
Mr. Shaikh says the real challenge now is how to turn localized efforts that have helped reduce the violence into a comprehensive national plan: not just de-escalation and cease-fire, but one that tackles civil governance.
“A national plan that doesn’t further embed the fragmentation and different realities across the country,” he stresses.
Sheikh adds that it is essential to broaden the process in Geneva to involve the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as other types of actors, to get a serious discussion going on a political process. “Without that, Geneva is dead,” he says. “It is never going to go anywhere.”