The Syrian-Turkish border, large swathes of which are held by US-backed Kurdish militants and Syrian mercenaries of Turkey, may soon see a return of state control.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a bid to stabilize this border zone amid a chaotic American pullout, has put forward a defunct accord — the two-decade old Adana Agreement — as a means for getting Turkish-Syrian relations back on track.
The Adana Agreement, signed between Syria and Turkey in October 1998, was hailed at the time of its signing as a major breakthrough, thawing friction in bilateral relations that dated back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seventy years earlier.
Mediated by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it famously called for the expulsion of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from Syria, and for the dismantling of Kurdish guerrilla training camps scattered across Syria and the Bekka Valley of neighboring Lebanon.
In return, Turkey recalled troops it had deployed to the border with Syria, perceived as threatening a full-fledge invasion.
The pact, which had been renewed automatically on an annual basis since 1998, was terminated in October 2012 when Syrian-Turkish relations were suspended.
President Putin has recently dug it up from the state archives in Ankara, where it was until now considered an obsolete agreement, and is working to breathe life into it once again. Moscow believes it can bring stability to a contested region where PKK-aligned Kurds and Syrian militants backed by Turkish forces have seized territory during the civil war.
‘Cleansing’ the border
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears open to the proposal, so long as his long-term security concerns are addressed, as do the Syrians.
Days after the latest Russian-Turkish Summit on January 23 in Moscow, the Syrian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that it would still be committed to Adana if the border situation with Turkey was returned to its pre-2011 status. In other words, Damascus would commit to cleansing the border area from any Kurdish militant presence—just like it did in 1998—if and when Erdogan withdrew from all towns and cities his forces have occupied over the past three years, the last being Afrin, west of the Euphrates River.
Syria’s position stands on two cruxes, Amer Elias, a Damascus-based political analyst and member of the ruling Baath Party, told Asia Times:
“First being withdrawal of the Turks from all Syrian territory, especially the triangle of Marea (25 km north of Aleppo), Azaz (32 km northwest of Aleppo), and al-Bab, (40 km northeast of Aleppo), in addition to Afrin. Turkey would also be required to suspend all support for military groups that are fighting the Syrian state.”
Only when that happens, he said, would security cooperation return to its pre-2011 level. Ankara, Elias says, is more in a hurry to do that than Damascus due to the perceived Kurdish threat on its borders with Syria.
The Adana Agreement previously gave Turkey the right to go after Kurdish militias up to a distance of five kilometers (3 miles) into Syrian territory. This would be done, its text states, only in coordination with Syrian authorities, when and if they fail to eradicate the militant presence on their side of the border.
Five kilometers is a fraction of what Erdogan had originally dreamt of achieving—a safe zone 32 kilometers deep and 460 km wide, running across half the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Turkish leader seems to have accepted this concession so long as the Russians guarantee that the Syrians will abide by their share of the agreement, eliminating the Kurdish militant presence throughout the area.
The agreement gives Erdogan the right to round up Kurdish militants on Syrian soil, but not to set up permanent bases nor to march any further into the Syrian inland. It says he can enter but cannot stay in Syria. It also recognizes Syrian sovereignty over the entire border strip, including towns like Jarablus and Azaz, which have been under Turkish occupation since 2016.
Kurds stand to lose
It’s a win-win scenario, for all parties—except for the Kurds. Turkey’s security concerns would be respected and accommodated fully, and so would Syria’s sovereignty. Vladimir Putin would emerge—yet again—as the ultimate broker of everything Syria-related. Revisiting Adana, under his auspices, would require serious engagement between Damascus and Ankara, transforming the two rival capitals from adversaries, into partners in combatting terrorism threats. Embassies would necessarily re-open and joint military committees would be formed, with back-to-back visits between Damascus and Ankara.
The term “confidence building” was key to success of the Adana Agreement, just over two decades ago. The media war was hushed, while Kurdish bases were quietly dismantled. Any Kurdish militant “wanted” by the Turks was prevented from residing in Syria or passing through Syrian territory. A telephone network was subsequently set up between the two countries and, in 2000, then-Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer visited Damascus to take part in Hafez al-Assad’s funeral. Similar high-level contacts and diplomatic protocol would need to be replicated once again.
This is not the first time that Putin unearths historical agreements to advance his contemporary objectives in Syria. When hammering out an endgame for the Syrian south last year, he tapped into the 1974 Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement, safeguarding Israel’s borders by pushing both Hezbollah—and ISIS—away from the border, in exchange for the return of UN forces, followed by Syrian troops side-by-side with Russian military police.
The Adana Agreement can for its part restore the Syrian government presence to the northern border, again under Russian supervision. Effectively it can be considered a Plan B to Erdogan’s safe zone ambition, achieving all its results but at no financial or military cost, without going through any of the complications related to its implementation, like negotiating parameters with the Americans, convincing the Iranians of its necessity, or warding off Syrian accusations of its illegality.