As a new round of Syria peace talks kicks off in Geneva, the Islamic State (IS) extremist group suffered a major defeat. Turkey's military confirmed on February 24, that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) backed by Turkish military had captured Al Bab, a major stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Syria, following two and a half months of combat actions. The battle to retake the town was the first joint military operation conducted by Russia and Turkey – a NATO member.
The successful Turkish operation in Syria's al-Bab would have been impossible without Russian support and Ankara is grateful to Moscow, said Turkish president's chief adviser Ilnur Cevik.
Al Bab stands in a strategic location on the M4 highway toward Iraq, and serves as a key route to Aleppo and Deir-ez-Zor. It is also is an important stepping stone on the way to Raqqa, the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear his desire to have Turkish-backed forces liberate the city. The new US administration has not yet defined its own anti-IS strategy. President Trump has ordered the drafting of a new plan to defeat the group, which is expected to come at the end of the month.
The Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army may try to retake the IS capital on its own but before the operation it has to seize the town of Manbij. At present, it is held by the US-supported Kurdish forces (YPG). Turkey has adamantly opposed the involvement of Kurdish forces in the fight against the IS. According to Ankara, the Syrian Kurdish units are terrorists with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting its own battle against Ankara in Turkey. An attack on Manbij would spark hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds.
The Turkish president says he will raise the issue of a “terror-free safe zone” in the north of Syria with US President Donald Trump who has spoken in favor of creating safe zones in Syria. This idea has long been a contentious issue but it can be implemented under certain conditions. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow on February 22 that he discussed safe zones with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when they met in Germany at the Munich security forum. According to him, Russia is open to dialogue with the United States on creating safe zones in Syria, but believes that any such plan needs to be coordinated with the Syrian government.
It’s not a big surprise that none of parties involved in Syria’s conflict has definite plans of action. It couldn’t be otherwise as the dynamics of the conflict is constantly changing. What is important is that the plans are discussed and moves are made after consultations.
It was announced recently that Turkish President Erdogan is traveling to Moscow on March 9-10 for a summit meeting with Russian President Putin and other top Russian officials. The agenda covers military and economic relations, including the sale of advanced S-400 air defense systems, and the situation in Syria.
It is imperative to coordinate activities. Russia is actually the only actor able to play the key role of an intermediary between Turkey, the Kurds and Syria’s government. It can also mediate between Washington, Tehran and Damascus. This will acquire special significance after Raqqa is retaken from the IS and the issue of the city’s future and what to do next comes to the fore. With many actors involved in the conflict pursuing different goals, no mission can be carried out without mediation.
Sometimes, things of great importance are undeservedly kept away from hitting media headlines. On February 27, Moscow offered very important initiatives to facilitate the negotiation process. Speaking on the sidelines of "The Middle East: When Will Tomorrow Come?" conference held by the Valdai Discussion Club, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov called for including the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the most effective element against the IS – into the ongoing Geneva talks. The official also admitted that Moscow is in regular contact with Damascus on many issues, including establishing safe zones in Syria.
It’s hard to underestimate the significance of these diplomatic initiatives. The Syrian Kurds should not be provoked into taking any reckless steps like announcing secession from Syria. Such a move will make go down the drain all the efforts applied to end the conflict. The Russia-mediated discussions of safe zones with the Syria’s government provides hope to find a mutually acceptable settlement with the participation of the Syrian government, Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and other actors involved.
The upcoming Russia-Turkey summit will take place after the US new strategy on the fight against the Islamic State is submitted and the first results of the Geneva talks become known. Under the circumstances, there are few doubts about the crucial importance of the upcoming Russia-Turkey summit. An agreement of further joint actions may become a basis for a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years. Despite the different views on some issues and many snags on the way, the two powers have joined together in the effort to end the Syrian nightmare and they have a real good chance to succeed.