Russian-brokered talks between Libya’s warring factions, culminating in a stormy walkout by Khalifa Haftar, may have topped the headlines out of Moscow this week, but it was a discreet meeting between Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs that reverberated to the Middle East.
Syria’s intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk on Monday met with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, in the Russian capital, their first announced meeting in nearly a decade, taking all observers off-guard. No leaks preceded it, but a tersely worded synopsis from the Syrian state news agency and details from Turkish pro-government media offer indications of how the two states could orient their relationship in the months to come.
The encounter, Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper reported, came on the sidelines of a Moscow-backed meeting between warring factions in Libya. While the Libya summit failed to produce a desired peace treaty, the Syrian-Turkish talks marked a new step of engagement for the wartime rivals.
“Despite backing opposing sides in Syria’s conflict, Ankara and Moscow have grown closer, their ties strengthened by joint energy projects and Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defenses,” Daily Sabah reported, adding that the relationship had also been bolstered by two years of mutual cooperation with Iran.
“Both sides have said there have been [wartime] intelligence contacts, but this is the first explicit acknowledgment of such a senior meeting,” the paper said.
The key issue on the table for the Turkish side appeared to be negotiating a mutual military response to Kurdish autonomy ambitions along the border, with Daily Sabah highlighting Hakan and Mamlouk had discussed “the possibility of cooperating against the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the YPG terrorist group in northeastern Syria.”
The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, is blacklisted as a terrorist group in Turkey, but its Syrian sister militia, the YPG, received American as well as Russian support during the war against ISIS.
Mamlouk, for his part, pressed Fidan for the evacuation of allied militants and heavy weaponry from the northwestern province of Idlib, and for the re-opening of the strategic M4 and M5 highways, which connect Syria’s coast and center to the northern border with Turkey.
“Mamlouk stressed that the Syrian state is determined to go ahead in its war against terrorism, liberate the whole region of Idlib and the return of the state’s authority,” SANA reported.
Turkish-backed Syrian militants, dominated by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, currently hold sway over the sprawling Idlib province, threatening the government’s coastal strongholds and cutting off key trade routes.
Message to Kurds
The Syrian security chief’s publicized talking points notably left out any specific mention of border lands occupied by Turkey after successive offensives against the YPG.
Turkey and its proxies currently control multiple Syrian towns in the northern province of Aleppo, including Afrin, where a Kurdish majority has been replaced with defeated Arab militants and their families.
Turkey and its proxies have also staked out a buffer zone on the border east of the Euphrates River, seized from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year.
During the October Turkish invasion, the Syrian Kurds had sought help from Damascus via Moscow, reportedly promising their mutual ally to disband the YPG and SDF by the end of 2019.
Both militias were to be incorporated into the Syrian armed forces in exchange for protection from the Turkish onslaught. The Kurds also promised to surrender major cities like Raqqa and Manbij.
Later, however, the Kurdish forces saw promise in Donald Trump’s decision to keep troops in Syria, ostensibly to protect oil fields from an ISIS comeback.
The Kurds, in the view of Damascus, are now trying to wiggle out of their agreement, hoping to preserve some elements of autonomy – something neither Syria, nor Turkey or Russia, will accept.
The security meeting in Moscow was thus aimed at sending the Kurds a strong message that these players will unite against them, militarily if needed, to put an end to their autonomy project, regardless of whether US troops are present in the area.
Ending the PKK
By serving as a regional power broker, Russia is not trying to displace the United States in the Middle East, says Sean Yom, a Middle East scholar and professor at Temple University.
“Moscow simply doesn’t have the economic wealth and military assets to create the regional infrastructure that the US has built over the past half-century,” Yom told Asia Times.
Instead, Russia is working “to gain prestige in specific theaters.”
In the Middle East, Putin hopes to revive a 1998 accord between Damascus and Ankara, known as the Adana Agreement.
That accord was meant to put an end to the PKK in Syria, but came apart with the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, when Ankara backed the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s government and bilateral ties were suspended. Both Damascus and Ankara have since expressed a willingness to abide by Adana.
Russia envisions a revised Adana Agreement, one that adds an additional layer of security guarantees on the Syrian-Turkish border, composed of Russian military police. This would give Turkey additional assurances that their borders are both ISIS and Kurdish-free.
The proposed amendment mirrors what Putin brokered with the Israelis in 2018, after the Syrian armed opposition was expelled from the Syrian south. At the time, Israel had complained that a return of the Syrian Army meant an embedded comeback for Hezbollah to the Syrian-Israeli border. To assure them that no Hezbollah fighters would enter the area, Putin deployed Russian military police throughout the Syrian south, which side-by-side with UN forces, provided Israel with all the security guarantees it required.
In Putin’s view, the same can be done with Turkey.
If revisited, the accord would spell out a normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus, something that Moscow has been eyeing for years.
Joint security committees would be established, along with a hotline, to monitor the Syrian-Turkish border for any Kurdish militant presence. The Turks would be able to enter Syrian territory in pursuit of Kurdish separatists, but only after informing their Syrian counterparts. The Syrian government would be responsible for its side of the border, making sure that no Kurdish militants were present near Turkish territory.
Russian-backed Syrian troops in recent days resumed operations in Idlib, after retaking the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun in late 2019. They now hope to march on the strategic cities of Jisr al-Shughour and Maaret al-Nouman, with the goal of retaking the entire province.
Should Erdogan be willing to pull his proxies out of Idlib and enable the seizure, his prize from Moscow would be to keep border territories seized from Kurdish militants.