Russia’s love affair with Turkey comes out of closet

It all started in 2017, when Americans failed to enforce ceasefire in Aleppo, writes Iftikhar Gilani

Russia’s love affair with Turkey comes out of closet
The Russian-Turkish lover affair which played out in the open in Syria quite recently, actually started early 2017 - two years after Moscow intervened militarily to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Although Moscow’s bold use of military power positioned it as an important player in the Middle East, it was not able to enforce peace on the ground.

Senior Advisor of Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, and negotiator in Syria, who was recently in Istanbul to attend an international mediation conference, revealed many facets of the Syrian quagmire as nears an end game, where parties are forced to accept the status-quo and recognize each other’s presence. She said a realization dawned on Moscow in a hard way that it was important to deal with regional players who have influence on various fighters. The most important lesson from the Syrian war was not to ignore regional countries and their strategic interests while negotiating peace, even if you are a big power, or have big boots on your side.

Narrating her experience, she said Russia and the US had started to work together to bring peace in Syria, after the Daesh or the ISIS threat took dangerous proportions. “We entered into an agreement with the US in eastern Aleppo in September 2016. According to the deal, both groups had to observe a ceasefire and withdraw from forward positions. While Damascus withdrew twice, there was no movement from opposition forces,” she said. Russian diplomat also said the ceasefire lasted just for two weeks, even though the US had put a seal on it. There was a series of such incidents. Russia had entered into various agreements with the US since February 2016. The one in Aleppo actually came as last straw. “We observed that the US was unable to enforce agreements. There was a series of discussions on this in Moscow. The first thing that had come to our minds was that the US was either lacking political will or was hoodwinking us,” she said.

Narrating the sequence, Maria, whose two books on Syria are hitting the stands soon, said it was concluded that the US did not have control on opposition groups, like Russians had a say in Damascus. “It was due to lack of this control that the US was not able to enforce agreements or a ceasefire on the ground,” she said. From September 2016, a search began to find an able partner, which opened the door for negotiations or a love affair with Turkey. “Once we had a deal with Turkey, within 48 hours, we could enforce a ceasefire in Aleppo and opposition forces vacated the area,” she added.  “The Turkish side had good links and influence on groups on the ground and they implemented the agreement. The US lacked such leverage,” she maintained. That is how the Astana process was born. The first meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, was held on January 23-24, 2017. So far, it has been a successful process. Russia had also cooperated with Turkey in the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and militants from eastern Aleppo before Syrian troops entered the city.

Her remarks have further firmed the belief that the previous US administration under President Barack Obama complicated the Syrian crisis by using Kurdish groups as their foot soldiers, rather than relying on its NATO ally Turkey in the region. She said the Aleppo issue sparked the search for better negotiation formats to resolve the Syrian conflict.

The 20-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the US and Russian foreign ministers had also failed to solve the Aleppo or the Idlib problem. “We realized that the group was not focused and we had too many people around the table and each one wanted to talk. We realized that we did not need talks, we needed action. That is what mediation is about,” the diplomat added.

The Russian diplomat, currently serving in the Department of Strategic Planning in the Foreign Ministry, said after contact with Turkey proved worthwhile in Aleppo, Moscow continued engagements and both sides agreed on a ceasefire in 2017. “We, on our part, convinced Damascus to observe ceasefire and Turkey played its part, convincing opposition groups to hold fire. In the North, it was easy, but Turkey managed to do it even in the South, which was difficult,” said Khodynskaya-Golenischeva.

So far, both sides have succeeded to create five de-escalation zones, namely in Idlib and parts of neighbouring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; in the northern part of Homs province; in the Damascus neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta, and in parts of southern Deraa and Quneitra provinces bordering Jordan. “The main idea was to freeze the situation as it was and to stop fighting, even if some large area was under the control of armed opposition groups. Believe me, since I was part of process, it was very difficult to convince Damascus. But we managed.”

Russians also launched a parallel process with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, who were also backing some motley groups. It was these efforts that the Syrian Constitutional Committee — made up of members of the opposition, civil society, and regime — began operating in Geneva recently. Sharing an experience, to highlight the point, how it was easy to deal with countries rather than fighting groups on the ground, she mentioned that group holding up in Jubar area in the outskirts of Damascus was shelling the Russian embassy. Russia tried to dissuade the group by talking to them directly but to no avail. “Then we moved to check social media accounts of this group to know their ideological leanings, and the country with which they have leanings. We found out and identified the country. And we were right. We contacted the country and issued them a subtle warning. The next day, the group not only stopped shelling the embassy, but withdrew from the area. We immediately moved in and began demining operation in the area,” she said.

The writer is a journalist based in Turkey