Turkey has made clear its position – Syria’s land should belong to the people of the country. Ankara does not oppose establishment of the Syria’s army’s control over the northern city of Manbij as this land must belong to the Syrians, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on February 5.
The statement is of great importance. It is made at a time clashes between Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups and the government forces have been reported to take place near the town of Al-Bab in the northern part of Syria. The position of Turkish government provides a chance to prevent the worst.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the next phase of Turkey's Euphrates Shield military campaign in northern Syria would target the Kurdish-controlled Manbij and called on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to leave the city.
It was reported on March 4 that Ahrar al-Sham Syrian rebel group had claimed to have brought down a MiG-23 with anti-aircraft fire over the Idlib governorate before it crashed near Turkey's Hatay province. The jet of this type can be shot by anti-aircraft artillery fire. The question is which exactly fraction of the group hit the plane and what the aircraft was doing in this area? The Ahrar al-Sham Syrian is indirectly represented at the Astana talks. There should be no hostilities in the territory it controls.
As the Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield started the group got split. A part of it moved to the buffer zone. Then it was actually divided into two camps: one is close to Jabhat al Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) terror extremist group; the other gravitates toward the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA). This event did not attract much media attention. The fraction affiliated with the FSA is deployed near the Turkish border. The split excludes direct participation in the Astana process but the group is still a part of the negotiations and sticks to the agreements reached.
The incident with the plane could have been a provocation. There are elements who wish the Astana process were stymied. It would be too naïve to believe they would not try to stage all kinds of provocative actions. The Astana peace process is not to everyone’s liking. The shooting could also be accidental. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. It happens.
What really matters is that Turkish search and rescue operations units found the pilot and offered him medical aid. He was not imprisoned. It indicates the attitude – Turkey does not consider the Syrian government forces as enemy. If the aircraft were hit by Turkish military or a rebel group under Turkey’s control, the events would have developed differently.
Besides, Moscow and Ankara clearly see the benefits of cooperation. It made possible the establishment of Russia-supported Syrian government forces’ control over the eastern part of Aleppo. The inclusion of Ankara into the peace making process paves the way for bringing in actors representing Sunni-dominated countries. The Russia-Turkey cooperation is a crucial factor for gradual transfer from armed conflict to political settlement, post-war reconstruction, decentralization of the country and finding a solution to the problem of refugees.
The Operation Euphrates Shield was coordinated with Moscow. The Russian aviation supported the Turkish troops in the battle for Al-Bab. With Russia mediation, it was agreed that the M4 motorway served as a dividing between Syrian troops and the forces loyal to Turkey. The incidents between pro-Turkish forces and the Kurds do not grow into conflicts thanks to Russian and US mediation efforts.
The events have certain background. Ankara cut ties with Syria after an uprising erupted in 2011. Throughout the five-year-old war, it has sided with armed groups fighting the Syrian government. It had insisted until recently that Assad’s departure was a prerequisite for the crisis management to hinder cooperation with Russia. Now the stance is being gradually reversed.
The current events make spring to mind a statement made last summer by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. «I am sure that we will return (our) ties with Syria to normal. We need it», he said in a televised address. According to him, ««It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbors that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea».
The PM also admitted that there was a need for policy change as Turkey needed to «increase its friends and decrease its enemies». «There are not many reasons for us to fight with Iraq, Syria, Egypt and countries in all regions. But there are many reasons to carry relations forward…» the Prime Minister said at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) in the capital Ankara on July 11.
This turn of events gives sense to the discussions about establishing safe zones in the northern part of Syria. It also makes realistic the US plans to launch an offensive to retake Raqqa. According to the Washington Post, a Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant US military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground.
Before it would have led to a major military conflict. Now it could be otherwise if the Syrian government gives its consent. Moreover, the sides could agree on areas of responsibility and coordination of efforts once a joint offensive starts. A joint military action coordinated between the Syrian government forces, Russia, Turkey, the Kurds and US-supported SDF units could become a turning point in the conflict, paving the way to the final defeat of the IS and a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
If it happens, Russia and Turkey will get credit for what they have done against all the odds.