By Helena Cobban
The United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, recently expressed confidence that the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC), a key gathering of representatives of the country’s government, opposition, and civil society, can convene as planned in Geneva, October 30. If this does occur—even with, perhaps a slippage of a few days—it could mark the beginning of the long-overdue wind-down of the civil war that has plagued Syria for nearly nine years now.
The key development that allows such a (cautiously) optimistic assessment is the decision Turkey has come to gradually over the past three years that it needs to abandon its previously staunchly held goal of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus by force. On October 22, the presidents of Turkey and Russia (which has been a close ally of the Syrian government for nearly 50 years) reached a crucial ten-point agreement, the first two points of which read thus:
1. The two sides reiterate their commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria and the protection of national security of Turkey.
2. They emphasize their determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations and to disrupt separatist agendas in the Syrian territory.
This agreement was reportedly reached after six-hours of one-on-one talks between the Turkish and Russian presidents, held in the presence of a single interpreter in the Russian resort city of Sochi. If implemented, it will mark the end of an 8.5-year period in which Turkey has pumped munitions, foreign fighters and money into Syria, in support of the prolonged and often very violent armed insurgency against Damascus.
Throughout many of those years, the Turkish campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria by force received generous and active support from the United States and some of its NATO allies, along with the autocratic governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Turkey’s lengthy border with Syria was always the key channel through which this foreign support was pumped into Syria; and with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now vowing to Russia that he will support the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria, then the whole project to effect regime change in Syria by force should now be declared dead.
Which should—hopefully—clear the way for the success of the upcoming meeting in Geneva of the SCC. The SCC’s mission is to negotiate changes to the Syrian constitution that will allow the differences among the country’s many political tendencies to be resolved though political means and in the context of rebuilding a constitutional order for the whole country, rather than through force.
There are, of course, many paradoxes and anomalies in the current, fast-moving diplomacy around Syria. The most glaring is that it was just 13 days after Erdogan sent a large military contingent in to occupy a swathe of land in northeastern Syria that he “reiterated” his commitment to the country’s territorial integrity. Another is that the ethnic-Syrian fighters who accompanied the Turkish Army into Syria were roundly denounced by many Western observers as “ragtag and ill-organized”—but until just a few months ago, those same fighters were lauded in the West as “moderate rebels”, “beacons of democracy,” and so on.
Behind the drama and the many tragedies of the fighting in northeastern Syria that followed Pres. Donald J. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. tripwire forces in the region would be withdrawn lie two notably smart campaigns of diplomacy—as waged by both Russia and Turkey.
Regarding Russia, as I wrote here back in July, Russia, “is the only state among the seven that have significant sway inside Syria that enjoys robust diplomatic ties to all the other six: Syria, Turkey, Iraq, the United States, Israel, and Iran.” Moreover, behind the scenes, Russia’s expert corps of smart, well-informed diplomats have been working hard at two different levels, to try to de-escalate and resolve the conflict inside Syria. At the international level, in January 2017, they convened the first meeting, in Astana, Kazakhstan, of a group of three countries with key interests inside Syria: the other two were Turkey and Iran (a key supporter of the Damascus government.) This Astana Group has held eight further meetings since then and helped pave the way for United Nations to be able to hold the upcoming inaugural meeting of the SCC.
At the intra-Syrian level, meanwhile, Russian diplomats have worked hard throughout the civil war to broker the numerous local ceasefires between government and opposition forces that in many cases allowed the government to retake cities or other areas of land through negotiations, rather than all-out war. They have also shuttled between Damascus and various portions of the Syrian opposition to test out various formulas for political reform. As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius noted in this piece today, back in 2017 one of the proposals they tested to address the concerns of Syria’s many Kurdish citizens was to take the name “Arab” out of the country’s formal name of “Syrian Arab Republic.”
Regarding the Turks, one of their great diplomatic coups was to be able to win away from the United States sponsorship and control of the chaotic grouping of 42 allegedly moderate Syrian rebel groups many of whom were formerly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many of those rebel fighters, now known as the “Syrian National Army,” have still been sporting the distinctive green-and-black striped badges once worn by the FSA, as they have been fighting alongside the Turkish Army units in northeastern Syria. And many of them—as can be seen in the big chart on p.11 of this study by the Turkish think-tank SETA—had previously received arms or other support from the U.S. military.
Taken as a whole, however, Turkey’s lengthy, high-level involvement in the regime-change project in Syria has been very damaging for the country’s own interests.
Back in Spring/Summer 2011, when Erdogan and Turkey’s then Foreign Minister (later, Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu decided to throw the country’s support wholly into the project to overthrow the Syrian government by force, they almost certainly expected it would be as speedy and decisive as the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi’s government in Libya, which they (like Washington and many other NATO allies) had also supported. But the anti-Assad project never gained the momentum—or, crucially, the level of support from the Syrian people—that it would have needed, to succeed. Instead, it became badly bogged down into the worst kind of a heavily armed civil war that can be imagined.
Moreover, Syria (unlike more distant Libya) has a very long common border with Turkey. That might have been helpful for Turkey’s military intelligence units that worked to send huge quantities of foreign fighters and advanced weapons in to aid the Syrian insurgents. But Syria’s proximity to Turkey was also harmful to Turkey. As Syria became mired in civil war, long-distance routes vital for Turkey’s manufacturers to be able to export to the big markets in the Gulf were cut. And some 3.5-plus million Syrians fleeing the war rushed across the border into Turkey. Turkey briefly used those refugees as pawns in its conflict with the EU, condoning the traffickers who funneled them up through the Balkans or across the Aegean into Europe until the EU agreed to pay Turkey handsomely to block that flow. But then, with the refugees stuck in a Turkey anyway suffering an economic downturn, much popular Turkish sentiment turned against them—and blamed the government for their presence.
Meantime, both the Syrian-Kurdish groups and the extremist takfiri groups that were among the Syrian opposition started to cause blowback within Turkey. The blowback from the Kurdish groups was particularly damaging—especially given that the U.S.-supported YPG was anyway always an offshoot of the outlawed Turkish-Kurdish group, the PKK.
Thus, in recent years, much Turkish popular sentiment has turned against the project to topple the Assad government by force; and that, along with the continuing offers from Moscow of intriguing blandishments, is almost certainly what has prompted Erdogan to sue for peace with Assad.
As in any lengthy civil war, there has been horrendous destruction and suffering on both (or all) sides of the political divide in Syria. Overcoming the hard feelings and deep grievances of the past will not be easy. And there remain numerous big military/security problems to solve—as well as the political/diplomatic problems which should start to be addressed as soon as the SCC meets in Geneva.
Prime among the remaining challenges is what to do with the large-scale takfiri (pro-Al-Qaeda) forces who remain deeply embedded in Idlib province, as well as what to do with those tens of thousands of other (pro-ISIS) takfiris who have been held in detention centers in northeastern Syria. Dealing with the Idlib takfiris should be primarily Turkey’s responsibility, since Turkey has supported them there for many years now. But all the many countries around the world from which the foreigners affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIS originally came to Syria will have to play their part.
But at least, let us all hope for a successful start—and completion—of the upcoming political reform talks in Geneva.