At the latest Astana Group meeting on Syria, Russia and Iran tried to soothe Turkey by rejecting the Kurdish-led self-rule in northern Syria in a joint declaration this week.
Turkey failed to garner Russian and Iranian backing for a fresh military intervention against Syrian Kurdish forces at the meeting of the Astana platform this week.
Senior diplomats from Turkey, Russia and Iran, the three guarantors of the platform, as well as representatives of Syria’s government and opposition, attended the June 15-16 meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan, known previously as Astana. While the official agenda included topics such as the return of Syrian refugees, the humanitarian and economic situation in Syria, the work of the constitutional committee in Geneva and confidence-boosting measures toward a political settlement, the main issue was Turkish threats to wrestle control of further territory held by the Kurds.
President Recep Tayyip has openly named Tel Rifaat and Manbij as targets, vowing to rid them of “terrorists” as part of a plan to create a safe zone with a depth of 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) along the Turkish border. The groups in Ankara’s crosshairs are the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party. Ankara equates them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed outfit designated as a terrorist group over its decades-long separatist campaign in Turkey.
Speaking to reporters ahead of the meeting, Alexander Lavrentiev, the Kremlin’s special Syria envoy and head of the Russian delegation, called Turkey’s intervention plan an “illogical and irrational” prospect that threatens “an escalation of tension and a new military confrontation in those areas,” according to Syrian media. He dismissed speculation that Russia could turn a blind eye in return for Turkey blocking Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO. “There is no such thing. We are not bargaining. We are not giving up on our allies in the region,” he said.
Ali Asghar Khaji, the head of the Iranian delegation, “underlined that Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are untouchable” in a meeting with the Turkish delegation, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Meanwhile, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan, who led the Syrian delegation, urged the United Nations “to rein in [Erdogan’s] aggressive policies” in a meeting with UN officials, Syrian media reported. In response, the UN officials cited statements by the UN secretary-general’s spokesperson in support of Syria’s sovereignty and against fresh escalatory moves in the country.
In separate talks with the Russians, Sousan rejected Turkey’s pretexts for attacks on Syrian territory, charging that they were designed “to achieve its expansionist ideals” and that “the Syrian people are determined to defend their country [and] resist the occupation.” Lavrentiev, for his part, pledged Russia would do its best to prevent further escalation in Syria.
In the final statement, the parties denounced “separatist agendas” in Syria in a nod to Turkey’s security concerns and a rebuke of the Kurdish groups leading the de facto self-rule in the north. They also reaffirmed commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and a political settlement to the conflict, as they have done in all previous statements in the past six years. In Turkey’s view, its control of significant chunks of Syrian territory does not contradict that commitment.
The parties also pledged to work together “to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations.”
The sixth point of the statement referred to Kurdish-held areas in northeast Syria, saying that lasting security and stability in the region can only be achieved by preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The wording matched the arguments that Russia has put forward against Turkey’s attempts to expand its control in northern Syria. Simply put, Moscow argues that the best way to address Ankara’s security concerns is to ensure that the Syrian army returns all the way to the Turkish border as Ankara begins to cooperate with Damascus and discuss joint measures under the 1998 Adana accord on security cooperation between the two countries. The communique suggests that Ankara has toed Moscow’s line, at least on paper.
In the same paragraph, the statement acknowledged Turkey’s concerns, saying that the parties reject “all attempts to create new realities on the ground, including illegitimate self-rule initiatives under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
In a reference to the United States, the statement denounced “the illegal seizure and transfer of oil revenues that should belong to Syria” and “the actions of countries that support terrorist entities including illegitimate self-rule initiatives in the northeast of Syria.”
Pledging continued cooperation to eliminate the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other UN-designated terrorist groups, the statement expressed “serious concern” with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which holds sway in Idlib and with which Turkey has tacitly cooperated on the ground. It stressed also the need to facilitate the return of refugees and support the UN-sponsored process of drafting a new constitution for Syria.
The text, released by the Kazakh hosts of the meeting, did not explicitly mention the YPG or the PKK, but Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said the final communique emphasized Turkey’s determination to “fight the PKK/YPG terrorist organization” and enact “any measures to protect our borders and prevent attacks on our people and security forces and innocent Syrian civilians.”
Russia’s denunciation of “separatist agendas” — a reference to the Kurds’ autonomy drive and partnership with the United States — suggests that it is shifting to a position more pleasing to Turkey. This trend has been tangible in other statements in recent times. Moscow’s temperate policy on the Kurds appears to be wearing out amid rising Russian-US tensions over Ukraine, opening room for Ankara to maneuver.
According to media reports on the talks, the Turkish side insisted that the YPG’s removal from Tel Rifaat and Manbij was a commitment that Russia failed to deliver under the 2019 Sochi deal, while the Russians recalled Turkey’s outstanding commitment to eliminate terrorist groups in Idlib and reopen the M4 motorway. Such exchanges between Turkey and Russia have recurred time and again as a tactic to balance or restrain each other.
The talks in Nur-Sultan were significant in terms of clarifying Moscow’s attitude on Ankara’s intervention threat, for its initial reactions were softer and more ambivalent compared to similar tensions in the past, contrasting the firm objections of Tehran. Some Russian statements even sought to justify Turkey’s security concerns, fueling speculation that Turkish-Russian bargaining on issues related to NATO and Ukraine might extend to the conflict in Syria. Nevertheless, a marked difference was visible between Russia’s rhetoric and its actions on the ground.
Russia took a number of steps signaling solidarity with the Syrian army, including joint military exercises in the south of Idlib on June 10. In a series of firsts, the Russians installed a Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft system at the Hasakah airport in the northeast; deployed tanks, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons and missiles to the Abkar base in the same region; and dispatched eight helicopters to the Abu al-Duhur base in eastern Idlib. Russian planes and helicopters rumbled in the skies of northeastern cities such as Qamishli, Tel Tamir, Amuda, Darbasiyah and Ras al-Ayn.
The Iranians, meanwhile, deployed reinforcements to the vicinity of Tel Rifaat and moved Shiite militia from Deir ez-Zor to the al-Nayrab base to the east of Aleppo.
In other words, Russia and Iran were naysaying a Turkish intervention with their actions on the ground, and any expectation that they would step back in the talks in Nur-Sultan was unrealistic. Though the final statement touched prominently on Turkey’s concerns, the settlement path it outlined is dismissive of military intervention.