By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
On October 22, coinciding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s stinging criticism of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “thief” who “is today stealing our land,” an “excellent agreement” was reached between Erdogan and the Russian President Putin that puts a seal of approval on a Turkish-dominated “safety zone” along the Turkey-Syrian border, to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces. The 10-point carefully constructed Sochi agreement calls for the following:
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 emphasise their determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations and to disrupt separatist agendas in the Syrian territory.
3. In this framework, the established status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area covering Tel Abyad and [Ras al-Ain] with a depth of 32km (20 miles) will be preserved.
4. Both sides reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement. The Russian Federation will facilitate the implementation of the Adana Agreement in the current circumstances.
5. Starting 12.00 noon of October 23, 2019, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons to the depth of 30km (19 miles) from the Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. At that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will start in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring with a depth of 10km (six miles), except Qamishli city.
6. All YPG elements and their weapons will be removed from Manbij and Tal Rifat.
7. Both sides will take necessary measures to prevent infiltrations of terrorist elements.
8. Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.
9. A joint monitoring and verification mechanism will be established to oversee and coordinate the implementation of this memorandum.
10. The two sides will continue to work to find a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict within Astana Mechanism and will support the activity of the Constitutional Committee.”
Stressing the importance of preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and the removal of what it deems to be illegitimate foreign forces from Syrian territory, Putin then worked the phone to bring Assad on board. However, Assad reiterated his firm opposition to Turkish military presence inside Syria, his determination to use “all legitimate means” to counter Turkey’s “invasion” as well as to ensure the return of masses of war refugees, which number around 250,000 since Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring began with the help of Arab proxies, who have since then been accused of committing numerous atrocities against the Kurds. Should the Kurdish fighters protecting the local population leave as envisioned in the Sochi agreement, there is a distinct possibility of further displacement and atrocities against the civilians, similar to the 2018 Efrin Operation, which has been decried by rights organizations for culminating in ethnic cleansing.
But now, with the U.S. forces withdrawing from northern Syria for the most part, the main responsibility to protect Kurdish civilians falls on Moscow’s shoulder, a tall task that will require more than helicopter gunships and token police force. Indeed, this mission is doomed to fail without committing substantial ground forces, something that until now Putin has hesitated in the Syrian theater of conflict. According to the Russian foreign ministry, the Syrian army has been assigned the role of patrolling the area outside the “safe zone.” Concerning the latter, the Turkish army still insists on a 460 kilometer zone, encompassing so many Kurdish towns and villages.
A big question is, of course, how long will Turkey remain on Syrian territory, given Erdogan’s stated intention of relocating some 1.5 million refugees from their present camps inside Turkey? The “safe zone” can also turn into a “safe haven” for the anti-Assad forces currently acting as Erdogan enablers in Operation Spring Peace, pushing their own agenda, which conflicts with some of Erdogan’s commitments under the Sochi agreement. Moreover, the fate of thousands of ISIS fighters in Kurdish custody, hundreds of whom Damascus claims to have been ferried to Iraq by U.S. forces, remains undetermined. Will Erdogan take over as ISIS prisoners’ new custodian, as the White House recently claimed, or will he instead recruit them in his army, as he has already done so according to various reports?
But, perhaps the most important question is regarding the battle-hardened Kurds, who have yet to be uprooted from the border towns besieged by Erdogan’s army and his mercenaries after nearly two weeks of fierce fighting. Erdgoan has his eyes set on the crucial Manbij area, where, according to the Kurds-Damascus agreement, there has been a fresh infusion of Syrian forces bolstering the city’s defense. As a result, the “safe zone” will likely be contested terrain for some time to come which could harm Russia’s relations with the Kurds, the Syrian government, and Iran if Putin’s fighter jets and helicopters begin to strafe the Syrian Kurds as a sunk cost of their new “win-win” partnership with Ankara.
On the other hand, if the emphasis is placed on implementing the Adana agreement, whereby Ankara deals directly with Damascus and continues the Astana process with Russia and Iran in good faith, then chances are the Sochi agreement can have long-lasting redeeming values.In other words, in the days and weeks ahead, much depends on the actual implementation of the paper agreement. From Tehran and Damascus’s vantage points, the deal has the potential deep flaw of bestowing legitimacy on the Operation Peace Spring’s zone, which has stalled in its tracks, partly because Ankarahas not yet committed a huge army to the cause and, instead, has tried to maximize the use of its proxies, with only limited success so far.
As for Tehran’s reaction, it is unlikely that any enthusiastic embrace of the Sochi agreement will be forthcoming. Tehran prefers to stay lockstep with Damascus and that explains Iran’s leaders’ repeated calls on Turkey to immediately stop its military action. Indeed, an editorial in the conservative daily Kayhan, close to the Supreme Leader, lambasts the Sochi agreement as “controversial,” surprising Russia’s allies in Tehran and Damascus, and paving the way to a “new crisis” while fulfilling Turkey’s questionable quest for a “safety zone.”
Erdogan’s negative reaction to Iran’s criticisms has been largely dismissed by the Tehran media, and at this point the emergence of an unwanted (minor) setback in Iran-Turkey relations can be taken for granted. Some aspects of the Sochi agreement appeal to Iran, but not others, resulting in a predictable mixed reception. There is, after all, a widespread perception in Iran that no matter what the verbal commitments of Erdogan to Syrian integrity, he has been in practice nibbling away at Syrian territory for two years in a row, with the prospect of greater encroachment come the next operation.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi has taught at Tehran University and Boston University and is a former consultant to the UN Program on Dialogue Among Civilizations. He is the author of several books on Iran, Islam, and the Middle East, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Books, 1995) and most recently Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018). He is the co-author of the forthcoming Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation.