The Syrian war and the demise of international diplomacy
The Middle East has experienced many political crises, conflicts and proxy wars, but never has diplomacy sunk as low as it has now. The Syrian crisis has caused diplomacy, mediation, the rules of war and politics to fall apart at the seams.
Allow me to list the most recent developments and then evaluate what they mean for the region:
• Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria.
• The EU called for sanctions on Turkey in response to its actions in Syria.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin requested a meeting with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi.
• US President Donald Trump’s scandalous letter to Erdogan.
• The visit by a US delegation to Ankara in the shadow of all these developments.
Prominent Syria expert Metin Gurcan correctly pointed out in a recent article that “there are four fronts of Operation Peace Spring: The military front on the ground, the diplomatic front, the optical front (in the eyes of Western public opinion and the international community) and the domestic front.”
All of the developments listed above should be considered within the framework of these four fronts. As we know, Operation Peace Spring, which Ankara launched on Oct. 9, is the third in a series of cross-border anti-terror operations in northern Syria targeting terrorists affiliated with Daesh, and the PKK’s Syrian offshoot the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Although such an operation had long been expected, it still came as a surprise to many.
Western powers strongly condemned Turkey for its actions and announced a series of sanctions, including a ban on arms sales. Erdogan responded by escalating the dispute, threatening to open the gates to Europe to nearly 4 million refugees hosted by Turkey.
Ankara has said from the start that its operation has two objectives: To eliminate a terrorist threat and create a safe zone for the resettlement of Syrian refugees. The reaction from European governments to the Turkish operation reflects public opinion in these countries, as the Kurdish issue has historically been viewed with sympathy in Europe.
However, threats of sanctions or of a flood refugees as part of a war of words between two sides blaming each other for the situation in Syria will get them nowhere.
In a prudent article, former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen highlighted the fact that Turkey and the West need each other’s help to influence the future of Syria. The US and Europe need to forget sanctions and adopt a results-oriented policy when dealing with Ankara.
I could not agree more, given that Turkey is the only NATO country bordering Syria, a country in which Russia and Iran are increasing their sphere of influence with each passing day. It is significant to note that a more understanding approach from the West to Turkey’s security concerns might even lead Ankara to rely less on Russia and Iran in dealing with the Syrian crisis.
From the way the letter is written, it seems obvious that it is designed to appeal to public opinion in the US, where a presidential election will be held next year. Trump wants to convince his critics, and the public, that he did not give the green light for the Turkish operation.
Against the backdrop of this tense atmosphere between Turkey and Western nations, Putin invited Erdogan to Sochi and they will meet on Oct. 22 to discuss Syria. Russia deployed its military on Oct. 15, quickly filling the void left by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. Moscow seems to be trying to maintain relationships with Turkey, the Syrian regime and the Kurds. Unlike Western countries, Russia has also reiterated that it understands Turkey’s security concerns and, therefore, is trying to keep the door open for discussion.
It is obvious that both Putin and Erdogan are keen to play smart. However, the Turkish side needs to keep in mind that the relationship between Russians and Kurds dates back to the establishment, with strong Soviet support, of the Republic of Mahabad in 1946. Although this pro-Soviet Kurdish republic existed for less than a year, it inspired Kurds to pursue their aspirations for an independent state. Russia has supported Kurdish nationalism ever since.
Speaking in Baku, where he was attending the seventh summit of the Turkic Council, Erdogan said the that Syrian regime entering Manbij city was “not very negative” for Turkey as long as “terrorists” are removed from the region. Moscow called for cooperation between Turkey and Syria to be based on the Adana Accord. This 1998 security pact set out the terms under which Turkey can carry out cross-border security operations, and placed an obligation on Damascus not to harbor members of the outlawed PKK. It worked quite well until Syrian war.
The start date of Operation Peace Spring, Oct. 9, is symbolic. It was the date in 1998 on which the Syrian regime deported PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to Russia after the Adana Accord was signed. However, it is crucial to remember that it was the Syrian regime that allowed the YPG to take control of this region of Syria during the civil war as retaliation against Turkey, which was supporting the opposition. The ball is now in Moscow’s court to convince Turkey that such a scenario will not happen again.
And so we come to the most recent, and shocking, development: Trump’s Oct. 9 letter to Erdogan. Defying all recognized norms of diplomacy, the US president warns his Turkish counterpart not to be “a fool.”
From the way it is written, it seems obvious that it is designed to appeal to public opinion in the US, where a presidential election will be held next year. Trump wants to convince his critics, and the public, that he did not give the green light for the Turkish operation.
However, the letter, which Turkish sources said was immediately thrown in the trash, not only provoked institutional distrust between the two countries but also overshadowed the visit to Turkey of a US delegation headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Thus, just like the Syrian war, international diplomacy and statecraft have fallen into a deep crisis.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz