Russia tells Turkey to get Assad’s ‘green light’ for safe zone in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the end of a joint press conference following a trilateral meeting with Iran on Syria in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14, 2019. (AFP / POOL / Sergei Chirikov)
Updated 14 February 2019

Russia tells Turkey to get Assad’s ‘green light’ for safe zone in Syria

  • Ankara and Moscow are trying their best to find a middle way on the future of Assad, expert says
  • Idlib is still the last pocket of resistance to Syrian ruler Bashad Assad

ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted on Thursday a key summit on Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi.

Statements from the Kremlin emphasizing the need for a “green light” from Syrian President Bashar Assad for the creation of a safe zone inside the country have been a game-changer for the future of Syrian politics. 

Nicholas Danforth, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, thinks that the policies adopted by the Kremlin during the Sochi summit are in line with Russia’s longstanding emphasis on maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.

“Turkey, Iran and Russia shared an interest in pressuring the US to leave, which helped facilitate Russia’s tacit support for Turkey’s Afrin operation. With Trump announcing the withdrawal of US forces, this shared interest is gone, and the parties’ conflicting goals will come to the fore,” Danforth told Arab News. 

If Turkey and the US now appear to be cooperating in the creation of a safe zone, that would give Russia additional incentive to oppose it, he suggested.

The trilateral summit brought to light emerging tensions between Moscow and Ankara over what will follow the planned withdrawal of US forces from Syria. 

While Turkey intends to establish a safe zone — clear of the Kurdish YPG militia — in the regions of northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, Russia insists that any plan involving action within Syrian territory must have Assad’s consent.

Ahead of the summit, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made this clear, saying, “The question of the presence of a military contingent acting on the authority of a third country on the territory of … Syria, must be decided directly by Damascus.” 

However, experts doubt that Erdogan will consent to any moves that could be seen to legitimize Assad. From the onset of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, Russia and Iran have been on the side of Assad’s government, while Turkey has backed opposition groups. 

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, thinks that although Ankara and Moscow disagree on a number of significant issues regarding Syria, they are both aware that they need to maintain their political and military dialogue in order to protect their long-term interests in the region, 

“Therefore, they are doing their best to find a middle way with regard to thorny issues like Idlib, the future of Assad, the YPG and the situation to the east of the Euphrates River,” he told Arab News. “For Turkey, it is important to keep Russia and Iran by its side, considering that there are still significant uncertainties about the US plan to withdraw from Syria.”

Ahead of the summit, the Kremlin made it clear that it is running out of patience with Ankara over its promises in the northwestern Idlib region, where a demilitarized zone was supposed to have been implemented in accordance with a joint deal between Russia and Turkey in September. 

Idlib is still the last pocket of resistance to Assad. The dominant force there is the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) umbrella group. Turkey, already host to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, is concerned about a further influx from Idlib in the event of military action against hard-line fighters there.

HTS, whose takeover in Idlib is pushing international aid agencies to pull out of the region, is also trying to take control of the key M5 highway, a vital economic supply line between Damascus and Turkish markets.

Experts do not expect Turkey to act unilaterally to establish safe zones without Assad’s consent, however, as that would risk the wrath of both Russia and the US.

“From the beginning of the crisis, Turkey has always gained ground in Syria by taking advantage of disagreements and policy clashes between Washington and Moscow, and getting the support at least one of them,” Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Russia analyst, told Arab News.

“Acting unilaterally in north-eastern Syria could cause many military and political troubles in Turkey’s relations with the US, and Russia may also raise its eyebrow, claiming violations of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he explained.

According to Has, Ankara will need to reach a consensus with the US — the main actor in Manbij and eastern parts of Euphrates — on America’s withdrawal strategy, and, at the same time “coordinate its actions with Moscow on the parameters of the so-called safe zone or some border security measures.”

Has believes that, given the current problematic nature of dialogue between Ankara and Damascus, the Turkish president would likely ask Moscow for approval of even a minor military incursion in Manbij or north-eastern Syria. 

“Moscow may prefer first to see some concrete steps of US withdrawal on the ground. The Kremlin’s consent for such a limited operation would certainly play into the hands of President Erdogan before the local elections in Turkey on March 31,” he said.

However, support from the Kremlin will come with a price, Has underlined.

“Probably, while waiting to see what the US withdrawal evolves into, Moscow will encourage the Turkish army to fight the HTS in Idlib in a more effective way, and will push Ankara to facilitate the advance of Russia-led regime forces in the region,” he said.


Libya’s Tripoli government seizes last LNA stronghold near capital

Updated 13 min 23 sec ago

Libya’s Tripoli government seizes last LNA stronghold near capital

  • Military sources in Haftar’s Libyan National Army said their forces had withdrawn from the town of Tarhouna
  • The advance extends the control of the Government of National Accord

TRIPOLI: Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government captured the last major stronghold of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar near Tripoli on Friday, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.
Military sources in Haftar’s Libyan National Army, LNA, said their forces had withdrawn from the town of Tarhouna. They headed toward Sirte, far along the coast, and the air base of Al-Jufra in central Libya. The LNA made no immediate official comment.
The advance extends the control of the Government of National Accord, GNA, and allied forces across most of northwest Libya, reversing many of Haftar’s gains from last year when he raced toward Tripoli.
The United Nations has started holding talks with both sides for a cease-fire deal in recent days, though previous truces have not stuck. The GNA gains could entrench the de facto partition of Libya into zones controlled by rival eastern and western governments whose foreign backers compete for regional sway.
Turkish military support for the GNA, with drone strikes, air defenses and a supply of allied Syrian fighters, was key to its recent successes. Ankara regards Libya as crucial to defending its interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, the LNA still retains its foreign support. Washington said last week Moscow had sent warplanes to LNA-held Jufra, though Russia and the LNA denied this.
The United Nations says weapons and fighters have flooded into the country in defiance of an arms embargo, risking a deadlier escalation. Meanwhile, a blockade of oil ports by eastern-based forces has almost entirely cut off energy revenue and both administrations face a looming financial crisis.
Stronghold

Located in the hills southeast of Tripoli, Tarhouna had functioned as a forward base for Haftar’s assault on the capital. Its swift fall suggests Haftar’s foreign supporters were less willing to sustain his bid to take over the entire country once Turkey intervened decisively to stop him.
The GNA operations room said in a statement that its forces had captured Tarhouna after entering from four sides. Abdelsalam Ahmed, a resident, said GNA forces had entered the town.
Videos and photographs posted online appeared to show GNA forces inside Tarhouna cheering and hugging each other and firing into the air.
“The Libyan government forces are rapidly moving in an organized manner and with armed drones. There could be a solution at the table, but Haftar’s forces are losing ground in every sense,” said a Turkish official.