President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held their sixth in person meeting on Nov. 13 in Sochi, in an obvious indication of close cooperation and dialogue between the two countries since ties had been repaired in mid-2016.
Since then, there have been two main dossiers in front of Erdoğan and Putin: Normalization of bilateral ties and cooperation in the Syrian theater. Both processes have produced concrete results. Russia has lifted almost all trade and tourism restrictions on Turkey, which allowed for the return of millions of Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and normalized bilateral trade, including agricultural products.
On Syria, only after receiving Russia’s green light, Turkey could clear its borders from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through the Euphrates Shield Operation and two countries cooperated for the removal of the siege in Aleppo in late 2016. The latter paved the way for the creation of the Astana Process—with the participation of Iran as well—in a bid to secure and expand the scope of truce between the Syrian regime and the oppositional groups.
Turkey, Russia and Iran have recently begun the implementation of what they call de-escalation zones in four different regions inside the country in a bid to cement the ceasefire and therefore be able to accelerate a political solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
However, there are big variants on what we mean by a political solution. As a matter of fact, the only internationally agreed solution to end unrest in Syria was crafted by the United Nations Security Council in late 2015 by adopting resolution 2254.
The U.N. road map suggests the establishment of a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian interim governance, which would set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. It also stipulates free and fair elections administered under U.N. supervision based on the idea that the Syrian people will decide on the future of Syria.
Obviously, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of using chemical weapons by U.N. observers, has not been regarded as a potential leader for the future of Syria. At least, that was the idea until a number of bloody jihadist terror organizations, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda and al-Nusra stormed both Iraq and Syria and committed dozens of massacres across Europe and the United States.
Things, however, changed drastically in the last one and a half years, particularly after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Priorities seem to have changed since then and there are not many people talking about the departure of al-Assad, including Turkey, who has been firmly against Syria’s autocratic leader.
In the meantime, in a rare agreement, Russian President Putin and U.S. President Trump issued a joint declaration last week on the margins of the APEC conference, highlighting that “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.”
They also confirmed that the political solution must be forged by adopting resolution 2254 by the U.N. Security Council. However, the statement also cites the Syrian President’s role in this process:
“They [Putin and Trump] also took note of President al-Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections as called for under UNSCR 2254. The two presidents affirmed that these steps must include full implementation of UNSCR 2254, including constitutional reform and free and fair elections under U.N. supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.”
It also urges “all Syrian parties to participate actively in the Geneva political process and to support efforts to ensure its success.”
In this regard, there are two major problems for Turkey about the Trump-Putin deal. First, it cites and highlights President al-Assad’s role in this process. Second, it calls on all Syrian parties to actively participate in the Geneva process, which obviously includes Syrian Kurdish groups under the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group Ankara considers a terrorist organization because of its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
It should be well emphasized that both Russia and the U.S. regard the Syrian Kurds as a powerful component of future Syria. Russia has delayed but not cancelled a conference in Sochi where all Syrian ethnic and sectarian groups will be represented to discuss the future of Syria. Even the Syrian leadership has recently pledged limited autonomy to Syrian Kurds through the flow of a political solution.
Under these circumstances, Erdoğan met Putin on Nov. 14 in Sochi. Before the meeting, he had strongly slammed the deal between Russia and the U.S., but later said Turkey was attaching importance to it. In Istanbul, he urged both Putin and Trump to withdraw their troops from Syria if they think there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict, while in Sochi, he said he agreed with Putin that there was a suitable environment for a political solution in Syria.
That’s the short story of how Turkey joined the Trump-Putin deal on Syria.