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Turkey and Russia in Syria: From the National Pact to the Adana Agreement


Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Now that the dreaded “Kurdish genocide,” many have been expecting, has still not come about, Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez) flew to Moscow for a tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin (aka the Czar) on 23 January 2019. That meeting had been in the works since late December last year. Both leaders talked and came to an amicable agreement in the end – concurring on the issue of establishing a security zone in northern Syria. Troubleshooting this delicate operation will be essential if the plan is to be successful, but with America still dragging its heels on its withdrawal of forces, how feasible is this plan?

Even though, international affairs and particularly, the situation in Syria, are very important matters, Tayyip Erdoğan’s tomato diplomacy cannot be discarded either, as affirmed by Putin himself: “[i]n the first 10 months of 2018, bilateral trade grew more than in the entire previous year. The number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey last year rose by 30 percent to an all-time high of six million,” before acknowledging that Russia and Turkey “also deal with regional security and cooperate extensively on Syria.” Subsequent to the leaders’ meeting, the Russian FM Sergey Lavrov told the press that “President Putin and President Erdogan . . . have once again reaffirmed [their] position . . . that the ultimate goal of all sides is to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” even underlining that AKP-led Turkey “unconditionally” supports such an undertaking. A state of affairs that is all but a far cry from the Prez’s position at the outset of Syria’s not-so civil war. Back then, Erdoğan did not shy away from comparing Bashar al-Assad to “Hitler, Mussolini, [and even] Ceausescu of Romania.” In fact, at the time, he even threatened his erstwhile Syrian friend by means of openly referring to Muammar Gaddafi (c. 1940-2011)’s fate: “look at the Libyan leader, who pointed his gun against his own people and, only 32 days ago, [he] got killed in a way that none of us desired, after using the same phrases that you use” (4 March 2011). But that was then and this is now. And now, a new wind is blowing through the streets of Ankara – a new wind accompanying the Russian assistance given to Damascus in an effort to thwart the onslaught of jihadi terrorists bent on destroying Assad’s Syria only to replace it with a Sunni-dominated Islamic state of sorts. This wind has been blowing since September 2015, and in the past two years it has clearly turned the Turkish sails around. At the end of last year (16 December 2018), the AKP FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu illustrated Ankara’s new outlook indicating that Turkey would consider working with Bashar al-Assad, “if he won a democratic election,” as related by the news agency Reuters. The commentator and Visiting Fellow at the British defence and security think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Kamal Alam, succinctly summarised the new Turkish position on Syria as follows: “Turkey has no option but to work with Assad. That’s a U-turn.”

The reasons for this U-turn seem obvious: first-and-foremost, there are a new set realities on the ground in Syria, and secondly, given the current New Cold War realignments, the Prez cannot but stand next to the Czar, while being friendly with China and Iran and even extending his support to Venezuela’s beleaguered Maduro.

The Adana Agreement: Continuity and no change

Considering the so-called Astana process and its three guarantor countries (Russia, Turkey and Iran), Sergey Lavrov stated that he believes “that the entire range of subjects will be discussed [in February 2019], because Astana is the only platform where the Syrian government can talk directly with the opposition. This is what we are trying to ensure. Apart from rooting out terrorism in Syria and tackling humanitarian matters, such as the return of refugees back home and confidence building, we must also move forward on the political track.” Turning away from the near future and back to the present, in the next instance, he referred to the “Adana Agreement . . . [which] was signed between Turkey and Syria in 1998 to allay Turkish security concerns.” And it was the Prez himself who had reminded the Czar and the world of the agreement during their recent meeting. Even before flying to Moscow, Tayyip Erdoğan had already talked about the agreement  — while speaking at the graduation ceremony at Ankara’s Military Academy, he reiterated that “it is necessary to stress the Adana Agreement with persistence” (30 August 2018). In fact, Turkey’s AKP governments (in office since 2002) have signed 49 separate agreements concerning the war-on-terror (terörle mücadele, in Turkish) with Damascus, with one of these was being specifically aimed at strengthening the Adana Agreement.

SEE ALSO: ‘What about the Kurds?!’ Getting a Proper Grip on Turks, Americans & Kurds in Syria

This accord between Ankara and Damascus quite literally harks back to a different world, having been negotiated and signed by Turkish and Syrian delegates meeting in Adana on 19-20 October 1998, when the country’s still largely symbolic presidency was occupied by Süleyman Demirel (1924-2015) and the post of PM headed by the now largely forgotten Mesut Yılmaz (the leader of the Motherland Party or Anavatan Partisi, acronymised as ANAP, in Turkish, a political party established in 1983 as a centre-right, neoliberal and secular nationalist organisation). At that stage, in the final decade of the previous century, Turkey’s war with the PKK (or Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê meaning Kurdistan Workers’ Party), that had started in 1984, had been at its height, and, relations with Syria tense and volatile. Syria’s then-leader Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) had namely granted “generous support” to the PKK. This Syrian backing of Turkey’s homegrown Kurdish insurgency was such that in late September 1998, the then-Chief of the Turkish General Staff Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu (1998-2002) accused Syria of using terrorism to “wage an undeclared war against Turkey.” Particularly grating from a Turkish point of view was the fact that, apparently already since  July 1979, the PKK’s founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan (better known as Apo) had been residing in Syria and had effectively conducted his terror campaign against Ankara (“guerrilla warfare against what [the PKK] called colonial powers in Kurdistan”) under the aegis of Damascus. In spite of the fact that there had been earlier agreements between Turkey and Syria (in 1987, 1992 and 1993), Apo’s continued sanctuary on Syrian soil all but soured relations, and even induced Ankara to seek a rapprochement with Tel Aviv. While, for its part, Syria had been forging closer ties with Greece. As a result, Turco-Syrian relations at the time were nothing but a “crisis” situation, a position that could have easily devolved into open war. Consequently, Syria’s Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam (1984-2005) seems to have personally delivered word to the exiled Apo that he had finally overstayed his welcome. And, on 20 October 1998, a happy Mesut Yılmaz broke the news that Öcalan had left Syria and that the Adana Agreement had been signed between Turkey and Syria. In fact, Apo flew around till he ended up in Kenya, where was captured by the Turkish Intelligence Organisation (or MİT) on 15 February 1999 – an operation that was realised with the active participation of the CIA, as confirmed by the Middle East analyst Alan Makovky who described the PKK leader’s capture as a “victory of the United States in its global fight against terrorism.”

The Agreement stipulates that neither Turkey nor Syria would allow the presence of any terror organisation that could pose a threat to either’s security or stability on their soil, specifically referring to the PKK or its successor organisation KONGRA-GEL (or the Kurdistan People’s Congress). And this joint counter-terror agreement was suspended in 2011, after the outbreak of Syria’s not-so civil war – a so-called civil war that was in large part organised on Turkish soil and with full AKP compliance in accordance with Washington’s goals and aims. At present though, AKP-led Ankara is on the verge of abandoning its one-time cosy ties with Washington, and is instead cementing links with Tehran and Moscow. In his 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment Report (released on 29 January), the U.S. Director of National Intelligence acknowledges that Turkey has now become “more willing to challenge US regional goals.” In fact, Daniel Coats really does not mince his words, and even speaks of “Turkey’s regional ambitions” and “the growing authoritarianism of Turkey’s leaders,” obviously directly referring to the figure of Tayyip Erdoğan. With respect to the Adana Agreement, Coats recognises that even AKP-led Turkey continues to regard the PKK’s activities “as existential threats” to its existence, and helpfully characterises the “People’s Protection Units (YPG)” as the PKK’s “militia in Syria.” And that is why the Prez brought up the topic in Moscow – in a New York Timesop-ed penned under his name and published earlier this year, Erdoğan reiterates that AKP-led Turkey has “no argument with the Syrian Kurds,” only with the “P.Y.D./Y.P.G., the Syrian branch of the P.K.K.” In the same way that he and his henchmen have no problems with the ‘Turkish Kurds,’ but only with the afore-mentioned terror group, as they would have it, which is why the Prez wants to establish a security zone in northern Syria in order to control and contain the flow of terrorists and weapons into south-eastern Turkey. Whereas many seem to fear that Turkey wants to occupy parts of Syria or even inflict major casualties upon the Kurds of northern Syria, Tayyip Erdoğan is at pains to convince global public opinion that his only concern is the safety of the Turkish citizenry that has been under attack since 1984. In line with what I have termed AKP-led Ankara’s pseudo-Ottoman policy of deconstructing the mass of Anatolian Turks into its component parts corresponding to “Anatolia’s Muslims of different ethnic strip united under a Muslim and/or” pseudo-Ottoman banner within the bounds of the 1919 National Pact (or Misak-i Millî), more or less  commensurate with the territorial body of the Ottoman Empire at the outset of the 20th century and today’s Republic of Turkey (with the notable exception of the cities of Mosul and Aleppo, which is a topic sometimes invoked by the Prez). As a result, these border lines are all but sacrosanct for the Kemalist (1923-2002) as well as post-Kemalist (2002-) leadership of the country. And besides, as explained by the writer and educationist Kâzım Nami [Duru] (1876-1967) as long ago as 1910, when he said that nearly everybody called the “Ottomans’ cherished homeland [of Anatolia] Turkey,” and that “there is no difference in saying either ‘Turkey’ or the ‘Ottoman land’.”

In a nutshell, that seems to be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s goal, a homeland that is strictly beholden to Sunni Islam, as promulagated by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet) and populated by pious citizen of various ethnic stripe yet united under Turkey’s star and crescent (a flag used by the Ottomans since the late 18th century).

A Security Zone and Cross-Border Operations

On 29 January 2019, Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar declared publicly that “[t]he Turkish Armed Forces have ended all preparations within the scope of employment. We will carry out all the necessary actions in Manbij and in the east of the Euphrates in due time.” While, the day before, the Prez himself had said that “very soon” the Turkish Armed Forces (or TSK) would pacify the area east of the Euphrates River in Syria, adding, that “[t]o this end, we are continuing our contacts with countries that have a military presence on the field, particularly the U.S. and Russia.” Rather than just barging into the neighbouring country beyond the confines of Turkey’s ‘National Pact,’ Turkey’s leadership appears to behave in a prudent and circumspect fashion. Moreover, Erdoğan indicated that one of the other goals of the security zone to be established would be to offer a home to some of the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees that are at present staying on Turkish soil. In this context, critics have already suggested that this would be nothing but a cynical ploy to alter the ethnic makeup of northern Syria’s population – an exercise in social engineering aimed at weakening the Kurdish hold on the region. In fact, the Prez has said that about 300,000 Syrians had already returned homeward, and that he actually  expected millions of Syrian nationals to move into the security zone to be established. According to the Turkish journalist Bülent Aydemir, writing for the pro-AKP Habertürk, in Moscow President Putin told his Turkish counterpart that Russia “is encouraging the Assad regime to cooperate with the Kurds.”  Aydemir maintains that this does not entail that Russia harbours any sympathies for the PYD of the YPG, but that as Russia’s main goal is the support of the Damascus government, accommodation between Assad and the Kurds would be all but aiding the American withdrawal from the Syrian theatre. In view of the fact that the continued presence of the U.S. is predicated on the continued presence of the Islamic State (or IS/ISIS) in Syria, it seems all but reasonable for Russia and the Assad government to come to an agreement with the Kurds of the PYD/YPG. Particularly now that it seems that the Caliph’s Merry Men (of the IS) are rapidly moving into neighbouring Iraqi territory, as noted by the intrepid Turkish journalist Hikmet Durgun. Durgun states unequivocally that the IS (or ISIS) has reached rock bottom in Syria. In fact, Durgun relates that the Popular Mobilization Units or Hashd al-Sha’bi allege that the U.S. is deliberately trying to have members of the Islamic State infiltrate neighbouring Iraq.

These developments would seem to indicate that a rapid withdrawal of American troops is unlikely. Whereas, a Turkish cross-border deployment appears more and more likely each passing day. Speaking in the border town and Syrian ‘rebel’ fighters’ enclave of Gaziantep the other day (26 January), the Prez was as predictable as always: “[a]t present we are still awaiting the outcome of the diplomatic process. If it works, it works, [but] if it doesn’t we’ll be unexpectedly there one night.”

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has  a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in Today’s Zaman and in Hürriyet Daily News. In the next instance, he became the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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