Astana and the emergence of a Turkish-Russian partnership on Syria
On January 23rd and 24th Syrian opposition and government forces convened for the first set of talks since Geneva in April 2016. Expectations for a significant breakthrough in Astana were low, especially as it became apparent that direct negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition would not be taking place. Instead, a form of shuttle diplomacy was conducted between the two parties. However, the talks which were coordinated by Turkey, Russia, and Iran marked a significant milestone in the pursuit of a resolution to the half-decade of violence that has engulfed the country. The Astana talks are the first of their kind for Syria, having occurred outside of the prototype of a U.S.-led UN process. The U.S. was invited to the event, but only deployed its Ambassador to Astana to serve as an observer to the talks. Saudi Arabia has been entirely sidelined from this round of negotiations. Instead the Astana talks were brokered by regional actors (Turkey, Russia, and Iran) whose interests and goals are not completely aligned. It seems that Turkey and Russia are in the midst of creating a firm base for cooperation on ending the strife in Syria.
Despite the difficulties of the Astana talks, Russia, Turkey, and Iran were able to announce an agreement with the aim of solidifying the current ceasefire ahead of the next round of UN sponsored talks in Geneva on February 8. Neither the Syrian government nor the Syrian opposition signed onto the final document, but in and of themselves Turkey, Russia, and Iran all have significant leverage on the ground in Syria and continue to be important pieces of securing peace and stability amongst the warring parties. UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura, who was present at the talks, backed the trilateral effort at moderating the ceasefire saying, “We didn’t have it [a strong monitoring mechanism] in the past, that’s the reason why often we failed.” The agreement was pursued in correlation with UN Security Council Resolution 2336 from December 29, 2016 which established a fresh cessation of hostilities between warring parties in Syria. The deal excluded ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as well as al-Qaeda in Syria.
Cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in organizing the Astana talks and Syria ceasefire have occurred alongside increased cooperation between Russia and Turkey on the al-Bab front. On January 8, Russia carried out airstrikes in support of the Turkish backed Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish backed operations in Syria have already successfully cleared ISIS from a large swath of territory along the Turkish border from al-Rai to Jarablus and are now pushing south toward al-Bab. Turkey and Russia have also increased their tactical cooperation, inking an agreement to coordinate air operations in Syria. The agreement paved the way for joint airstrikes against ISIS in and around al-Bab.
The Russian-Turkish partnership in Syria has developed alongside increasing Turkish frustration with U.S. policy on Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu highlighted the reality in a January 11 op-ed penned for the Washington Post, asserting, “It is is sadly true that the Turkey-U.S. bilateral relationship is under severe strain.” One of the major sources of tension between the two partners has been continued U.S. backing of YPG forces within the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). Turkey has been vocal in its desire for President Trump to alter the Obama administration’s established reliance on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. It has even hinted that U.S. access Incirlik air base could be reconsidered, a strong statement meant to warn Washington that Ankara is increasingly fed-up with its support of the YPG. The success of Operation Euphrates shield has helped establish Turkish backed forces as a resilient alternative to the YPG and SDF.
The PYD was not invited to the Astana talks, which has led it to assert that it will not be bound by any decisions made at the conference. Previously, the Kremlin had pushed for the inclusion of the PYD in negotiations in Geneva, a stance that was objected to by Turkey. However, under the newly forged working relationship between Russia and Turkey, Ankara has seen the Russians back away from both their support for the PYD and also from its insistence on their inclusion in negotiations.
One of the most apparent areas of discord in Ankara and Moscow’s Syria policies is the future role of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Turkey has been unwavering in its position that the only path toward a stable and peaceful Syria is without Assad remaining in power. Inversely, since its entrance to the Syrian conflict in October 2015, Moscow’s goal of propping up the Assad regime (along with securing its own asset, Latakia air base) has been thinly veiled. In a statement in the run-up to the Astana talks, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek acknowledged that the situation on the ground has changed. Still, Turkey has maintained that it believes in a unified Syria without Assad remaining in power. DPM Simsek’s statement, though not indicative of a broader policy change on the issue, has corresponded with speculation that Turkey is open to Assad remaining in Syria until formal presidential elections can be held, even if a precise deadline are not provided. Turkey’s own priorities in northern Syria include curtailing PYD territorial ambitions as well as defeating ISIS. It is possible that, as part of its newly minted cooperation with Russia in Syria, Turkey will be less forceful in its pronouncements against the Assad government in exchange for Russian support against ISIS and PYD ambitions in northern Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim has called the Astana agreement a “serious diplomatic success,” and a buttress for the upcoming Geneva talks. The true strength of the Astana talks was in the continued dialogue between Turkey and Russia, as well as Iran toward a solution to the Syrian crisis. What remains to be seen is how effective this partnership will be in monitoring ceasefire violations and whether they can continue to coax the opposition and regime factions they are aligned with toward the negotiation table. What is certain is that a framework for cooperation on Syria has emerged between Russia and Turkey and that it is likely here to stay.