The boundaries of a compromise: Russia, Turkey and Northern Syria

09.08.2016

The battle for Aleppo entered a critical stage this week. Government troops reinforced by the Russian air force blocked the major parts of the city. In order to avoid unnecessary civilian losses, a humanitarian corridor was established, through which they can leave the city. The assault on the city with high losses on all sides, including civilians can be attributed to modern weapons, artillery, and aircraft.

In response, the rebels declared on August 7th that they had broken the Aleppo blockage. According to them, they struck a 2-kilometer corridor along which they brought food into the city (a western media photo-op), and ammunition. However, the Syrian army shelled this area and talk about the total breaking of the siege is still too early. The recent activity here shows that the situation is a stalemate. None of the parties can really gain the upper hand. In fact, the present fighting is in part intended to act a bargaining chips in upcoming negotiations.

The Russian and Syrian leadership understands that to solve the Aleppo situation, they must have an agreement with Turkey. Arms supplies to insurgents in Aleppo and Idlib province in northwestern Syria go through Turkey. Many rebel groups have received support from Turkey, and public opinion in Turkey perceives the Islamist invasion as a just war.

The issue of Aleppo and northern Syria is a key knot of contradictions that Russia and Turkey, working on their anti-Western rapprochement, must resolve. Vladimir Putin, Russian President and Recep Erdogan, the Turkish leader held historical meeting today. At stake is the question of Turkey's exit from NATO and changes in the global balance of power. Both sides understand that there should be a mutually acceptable compromise. Meanwhile, Russia, which acts on foreign soil far from its own borders, has more room to maneuver.

Aleppo is the second largest city after Damascus in Syria. Its capture will mean a radical change in the war. But even stabilization in the Aleppo region, by agreements with Turkey without taking the city, will help free up forces to fight against the Islamic State and the opposition units operating in the south-east of the country along the border with Jordan.
In order to understand the boundaries of a compromise, which Turkey can accept, we should highlight the strategic priorities of the country north of Syria:

1. Protection of the Turcoman population. Syrian Turcomans make up a large part of the population of Northern Syria, especially in the provinces of Latakia and Aleppo. In addition to the proper Turkoman units, Turcoman representatives related to the Turks are widely presented in many different Islamist formations, including those besieged by government forces in Aleppo.

Among units active in Syria, Turcomans are formed in the "Brigade of Syrian Turkmens", "Brigade Jabal al-Turkman" (linked to Al-Qaeda through the Al-Nusra Front), "Brigade of Sultan Selim." The Turks are a part of the group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front, which is currently undergoing a re-branding under the name Dzhabhat Fatah al-Sham. One of the largest armed Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham, has the support of Turkey.

2. The elimination of the Kurdish resistance as a source of destabilization of Turkey. We are talking about the possibility of attacks against the base of the Kurdish self-defense forces - YPG , under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK).

3. Gain more control of the Islamists in Syria, which previously enjoyed the support of Turkey. Turkey cannot give up their support for reasons of reasons credibility, and because in this case the control of the radicals goes all the way to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States, which can start to use them against Turkey.

Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Damascus would be most interested in the overlap of the border with Turkey and the elimination of the threat from the north. Syrian Kurds may become a bargaining chip that Russia and Syria are ready to deliver, in response to the Turkish side to make concessions. Representatives of the YPG push the American plan of federalization of Syria, which neither Damascus nor Moscow can accept.

Another point of contact areradical Islamists, who threaten Turkey also, especially after it initiated the revision of Ahmet Davutoglu's Neo-Ottoman policy. Turkey formally announced al-Nusra and the ISIS  to be terrorist organizations. Therefore, it can formally join the Russian operations in Syria against these structures. An open Turkish operation against Nusra Front under the banner of the fight against terrorism would help Turkey itself to distinguish between "moderate" and "immoderate" Islamists targeting those, who are loosely controlled or are dangerous for the country in changing circumstances. Turkey is also interested in having part of the most radical Islamists, who arrived in Syria from Turkey, and are able to be a destabilizing factor, permanently eliminated. In that, Turkey's interests fully coincide with Russia. The exchange of intelligence and military information could help eliminate a number of too radical or uncontrolled leaders and groups at the hands of Russia and Syria, in cases where Ankara could not do it by itself.

At the same time to separate moderate and immoderate rebels, Russian and Turkish diplomacy could initiate the peace process in Aleppo. At the same time, Ankara would conduct a reality check of its influence in northern Syria. Turkey would be made "savior of Aleppo", and all uncontrollable (and controlled by the United States, Qatar and the Saudis) groupings would be destroyed by the actions of the Russian side, as refused to join the peace process.

In the context of the Eurasian reorientation of Turkey to Russia, it would be preferable to agree to direct (open or disguised as Turcoman self-defense groups) military presence of Turkey in northern Syria, in areas of importance to the country, in exchange for giving up support to Islamist armed groups and forcing them to make peace.

Turkey is more predictable than militants loyal to multiple centers of power. At the same time, Russia should give Erdogan an opportunity to save face and even get additional support inside the country by eliminating the Kurdish threat, the initiation of the peace process, the liberation of Aleppo, and protecting Turcoman-inhabited and zones of influence in the Northern Syria. The Turcoman factor must be given the utmost attention. Concessions and compromises made by Turkey should be covered as unconditional victory and achievement of the Turkish side.