An event liable to change, albeit not fundamentally, our chronicle of the events in Syria took place recently. On March 14, Russian President V. Putin announced the start of the immediate withdrawal of Russian combat forces from that country. Being completely unexpected, this gesture took by surprise and its meaning is still debated. Even John Kerry, the head of American diplomacy, is about to visit Moscow in a few days’ time, surely in order to test, at the source, the dimensions/meanings of Russia’s sudden move. In fact, the topic will undoubtedly be extensively debated, but what is obvious is that it rather serves to clarify the situation on the ground, since the negotiations in Geneva will be more productive in the absence of Russian airstrikes, and the danger of a catastrophic clash between Russian and Turkish armed forces is diminishing exponentially. But maintaining Russian S-400 surface to air missile systems deployed within Russian bases on Syrian territory means Russia continues to be a major actor in Syria, these systems being a deterrent of the establishment of ‘no-fly zones,’ which Ankara seems to be planning. At any rate, for what we are interested, the Russian move also has consequences – maybe most of them of a positive nature – on Turkey’s position in the complicated Syrian file.
In Turkey, the process of consolidating relations with the EU is under way. Of course, there is the possibility of delays or difficult negotiations. Among other things, also because of measures adopted by Ankara domestically, measures that contradict the basic principles of the European organization. The political leadership in Ankara recently adopted restrictive measures toward the independent press in Turkey, some newspapers that oppose official policies being shut down. For the time being, the circumstances that led to these events are abstruse – authorities accuse the existence of a parallel state structure under the influence of exiled cleric F. Gullen, a former AKP ally – a crisis within the ruling party not being ruled out. Such a crisis, according to some analysts, would take place precisely because of the change in foreign policy strategy, the line of resuming efforts to join the EU being adopted. According to one analysis, this new policy line has allegedly activated, within the ruling party, the issue of political responsibilities for the failures registered so far: “The question is whether that will take place without anyone asked to pay the bill for evident failures – not only in Ankara’s Middle East policy but also in its handling of the Kurdish issue amid the uptick in terror acts by the PKK, which is related to what has been happening in Syria and Iraq.” At any rate, in the face of obvious backsliding in the overall domestic policy processes of a state seeking accession, the EU reacted in a statement made on March 5, according to which an independent and free media represents “one of the cornerstones of a democratic society by facilitating the free flow of information and ideas, and by ensuring transparency and accountability.” A state seeking to accede to the EU “needs to guarantee fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, and due judicial process, in line with the European Convention on Human Rights,” the statement says. Brussels’ signal to Ankara is clear: our support is based on the principles that govern the solidarity of EU countries.
The internal situation in Turkey and overall developments in the EU alike are closely connected with what is happening in Syria. The current stake for both actors is identifying a solution to the Syrian file so that the extremely negative – for both Turkey and Europe – consequences of the civil war in that country (the rising wave of refugees) could be tackled over the medium and long term. Over the short term, will future Syria be a country in which the enforcement of UN Resolution 2254 would have a clear path, so a unitary country with a leadership elected in free elections? Or will it be a federalized Syria or, worse, a Syria split into several mini-states?
On the other hand, Russian experts themselves are sceptical in what concerns the durability of the ceasefire. At the annual Valdai Club conference (February 25-26), which focused on the situation in the Mideast, it was pointed out that the idea of a “Plan B” in case of failure to enforce the UN resolution (publicly specified as a possibility by John Kerry) shows problems in the U.S. – Russia collaboration. “Some provisions of the ceasefire agreement allow for such an unfortunate scenario,” one of the experts argued. “The agreement excludes terrorist organizations, primarily the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria. (…) Given that the U.S. and Russia have still failed to draft a common list of terrorist organizations fighting in Syria (with Russia’s list being broader), the concern over the potential durability of the ceasefire is valid.”
In fact, the scenario of splitting Syria has started to be discussed recently. Thus, a federal arrangement in Syria is not ruled out, according to news from the diplomatic world, “some major Western powers, not only Russia, have also been considering the possibility of a federal structure for Syria,” communicating such ideas even to UN envoys. “While insisting on retaining the territorial integrity of Syria, so continuing to keep it as a single country, of course there are all sorts of different models of a federal structure that would, in some models, have a very, very loose centre and a lot of autonomy for different regions,” the same source commented, without offering details about the possible federalization models being considered. Based on the interests of the great powers interested, one can imagine that such plans concern the survival of the Assad regime in one part of Syria, the opposition’s rejection of a federalization path as a solution to the civil war being notorious.
Against the backdrop of joint interests identified in the overall developments in the Mideast, Ankara recently developed an overall strategy to consolidate links with the EU, one that few analysts foresaw so radical a few months ago. After the first round of negotiations with the EU several weeks ago, through which Turkey took the commitment, in return for EUR 3 bln, to control the flow of refugees from Syria, the second round took place in early March. Of course, the conditions are now radically different – the correlation of forces in Syria was obvious, decisively modified after the Paris terrorist attacks in November – and the use of the refugees issue as a political “weapon” was posing problems for the EU, both in terms of intra-organization relations as well as in terms of its foreign relations. These problems came on top of those that the Brexit referendum scheduled in June could bring and exponentially maximise, but also of some contradictory developments in the Ukrainian file and in the issue of lifting the sanctions on Russia. In this blend of contradictory interests, the new negotiation ground between Turkey and the EU became clearer: the EU interest to regulate the flow of refugees imperatively needs the collaboration of Ankara, and the latter was able to identify the moment of re-launching the process of accession to the European organization. Turkey thus maximises her own visibility at international level, the EU’s power vectors being added to its own weight in a veritable partnership. Based on the agreements reached by European and Turkish officials in Brussels on March 7-8, Turkey will take over all the migrants that illegally entered Europe – in return for new sums of money –, the EU travel visa regime for Turkish citizens is liberalized and the negotiations on Ankara’s accession to the European organization will be accelerated. This agreement, which features obvious benefits for Turkey – Turkish citizens’ freedom of travel in Europe is one of the most important – will be signed on March 17 at a new EU Summit. But the agreement is already under the critical pressure of international organizations, in regard to the violation of some regulations concerning the right to asylum, some of them not hesitating to label the agreement as “cynical and inhumane.”
The very idea of reaching an EU-Turkey agreement that would regulate the issue of refugees but also accelerate Ankara’s accession to “the 28,” is a big step forward for both sides, even though some provisions will register amendments or final changes.