With a major US withdrawal from Syria expected sooner rather than later, the pre-existing trend of regional powers guiding, shaping and owning the peace process in the Arab Republic’s conflict is becoming all the more pronounced. The Astana Trio of Turkey, Russia and Iran have long been the major force in terms of coursing the peace process in Syria and with the US seemingly on the verge of limiting its role in Syria, Turkey has publicly announced something that many had deduced was the reality for some time. Speaking in a lengthy interview with TRT , President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated:
“Foreign policy with Syria continues at a lower level. Leaders may be cut out. But intelligence units can communicate for their interests. Even if you have an enemy, you should not break the ties. You may need that later”.
Erdoğan’s statement not only confirms what was previously hinted at by Turkey’s Foreign Minister, but his choice of words offers a helpful indication of what Turkey seeks from Damascus in order to begin some form of normalisation in bilateral relations that were abruptly cut off in 2011. Turkish officials have made it clear that Damascus must uphold the 1998 Adana Agreement which guarantees that Syria will disallow the PKK terror organisation and related groups from operating on Syria’s soil. The Adana Agreement was helpful in improving Turkey-Syria relations that had been strained for multiple reasons over the course of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, were most notably strained due to the fact that beginning in the early 1980s, Damascus allowed the PKK to use Syrian territory as a regional base.
The Adana Agreement saw PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan ejected from Syria and in the following years, the world witnessed the phenomenon of a young Bashar al-Assad and newly elected Prime Minister Erdoğan working to rapidly improve bilateral relations.
Of course, the present conflict ended the proverbial Indian summer of Ankara-Damascus relations and due to the ideological component of the conflict, it is difficult to see Assad and Erdoğan ever rekindling the apparently warm ties they had throughout much of the first decade of the 21st century. But because Syria and Turkey are neighbours and because Erdoğan remains popular in Turkey whilst Assad’s position in Syria appears to be solidified for years to come, eventually the two neighbouring states will have to work towards normalising relations, even if this means little meaningful contact between the two presidents.
In order to accomplish this, there are clear win-win goals that both sides can pursue. First of all, it is not only in Turkey’s interest to persuade Syria to remove the YPG/PKK threat by any means necessary, but as the YPG/PKK have been guilty of ethnically cleansing the indigenous Arab populations and ethnic minorities (including anti-YPG Kurds) of northern Syria, as well as being guilty of war crimes according to Amnesty International – it becomes self-evident that the terror group is a danger not only to Turkey but also to Syria. This is the fact in spite of the relations that the PKK had with Syria during much of the 1980s and 1990s.
With Russia openly discussing the importance of the Adana Agreement, it is becoming clear that Damascus’s superpower ally implicitly agrees with the need for Syria to uphold the Adana Agreement in order to satisfy Turkey’s security concerns as well as the status of Syria’s long term territorial unity. Making matters more interesting is the fact that for the first time since the present conflict began, Damascus is itself acknowledging its commitment to the Adana Agreement. Whilst Damascus has publicly proclaimed that Turkey is the party violating the agreement, the fact that both Ankara and Damascus are acknowledging the 1998 bilateral accord is symptomatic of a shift in the trajectory of Syrian thinking on the matter. This is to say that whilst for public consumption, Damascus still has to openly disagree with Turkey, by invoking the Adana Agreement, it at least shows that there is now a potential for a Russia or Iran brokered understanding between Damascus and Ankara – the likes of which would have seemed impossible even a year ago.
When taken in totality, these recent developments serve to demonstrate the fact that just as rivers find their way to the sea, regional powers engaged in conflict have a vested interest in eventually normalising relations throughout the course of a peace process, in the way that more distant powers simply do not. The US, France, Germany and UK will not be domestically impacted due to a long term lack of relations with Syria, but as a neighbour of Syria, Turkey will eventually have to regularise relations. As Iran and Russia are fellow Eurasian powers that each have positive relations with Turkey, it is clearly in the interests of both countries to help accelerate a mutually acceptable normalisation process in this regard. The same cannot be said for the powers of Europe and North America that have long been involved in the Syria conflict.
In this sense, while the road to regional normalisation in respect of Ankara/Damascus relations will be a lengthy and at times difficult process, by regionalising the peace process, there is a better chance of some form of win-win outcome to end a conflict whose conclusion is in the interests of every major power in western Eurasia and beyond.