20 December 2018

Are the US starting to be absent in Middle East? The Istanbul summit and its immediate consequences

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

President Erdogan, reunion’s host, opened participants list for Istanbul’s summit with president Putin, placing Mrs. Merkel after the French president, Macron * The perspective of a Russian-Syrian attack over Idlib enclave, to displace thousands of refugees to Europe, hastened European leaders’ decisions * A European distrust vote has been made in Istanbul for US’s policies in the region. Of course, a consultative one, but without US nothing is possible * President Macron is negotiating organizing of a new extended format meeting, in Paris * Turkey is preparing for the “2.0 Olive Branch” Operation, East of Euphrates.

Although on the microphone posted in front of him it was written Bosch, president Erdogan opened participants’ list for Istanbul’s Summit with president Putin, placing Mrs. Merkel after the French president, Macron. The German chancellor was not the last one on the list, as at the summit participated also Staffan de Mistura, UN’s special representative for Syria, who is at the end of his mandate, exiled in audience when the presentation of the final communique took place.

The summit did not take place in September because the European leaders thought, at that moment, it was too early. Meanwhile, Sochi’s Agreement interfered, Syrian rebels, from Idlib enclave, were imposed a behavior line to follow, some respected it, some did not, mostly did not. Damascus’ regime troops started, to that end, to come close to the demarcation’s line. And so, trying not to be too late, the German chancellor and the French president, so called ”Europe”, went, at the end of October, in Istanbul, to a meeting which is more filled with significances, than with concrete results.

The perspective of other wave of thousands of refugees coming to Europe, generated by an imminent Russian-Syrian attack over the enclave, hastened European leaders’ decisions. Especially considering that Erdogan quickly calculated if these will be the millions in numbers.

The summit was a victory for the one who did not participate at the reunion, Syrian president Assad, a recognition of the fact that he won the war. After starting the normalization process of the bilateral relations with some Arab states, Kuwait and Bahrain, for example, Damascus’ regime can now take advantage of neighbors’ interest, but also of European states one, to stabilize the area, to send the refugees back. Regime’s change remains an option only for some national agendas, which could, still, face the contrary on a future reunion, more complex than the one in Istanbul.

With France and Germany’s participation, along with Russia, at the discussions regarding Syria, president Erdogan was more into reaching strictly national objectives, than for the political process of Syrian conflict’s regulation:

  • he got Europe on his side, counterbalancing Russia, partner in Middle East, but wherewith Turkey has competitive relations and, sometimes, different points of views;
  • he avoided, for some time, attacking Idlib enclave and creating new pressures on Syrian refuges over his borders;
  • he acted with diplomacy in bringing at the same table several important states which, generally, come from different groups, the one which evolves around the US, and includes France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and the one led by Russia, Turkey, Iran trio;
  • he showed that Turkey is not and will not ever be isolated, as some thought after the presidential elections and after the diplomatic and economic issues created by US sanctions;
  • he imposed, indirectly, an possible “road-map” to solve the Syrian conflict, because, through France’s voice, it was heard also president Trump’s voice, who, in the direct phone call discussion before the summit, he asked the French president to present the “common vision regarding Syria”.

During the summit, the French president upkept the speech regarding “Russia’s responsibilities” in implementing the agreement regarding Idlib enclave, but as the doccument is made by the exact group of states which are supporting Damascus, it becomes pretty obvious that the stabilization solutions proposed by the “winners” are starting to  prevail, even if are involving the recognition of the fact that, in Syria, the military and political evolutions were not the same as the ones foreseen at the beginning of the “Arab spring”.

Why would Merkel and Macron want to discuss with Putin and Erdogan?

The main threat for Europe, which is coming from the Middle East / Syria area, is the one addressed to its security and it is represented not only by the thousands of refugees which could pass borders if a crisis will come, but also by the terrorist danger, the hundreds, thousands of European citizens, radicalized by the extended Syrian conflict and the one coming from West of Iraq. Not far from August, president Macron was warning, in a speech on foreign policy issues, that “Europe can not longer count only on US’s support for its security”. And US policy, from the last period, regarding Middle East, is one to produce problems for European partners. For that end, like in the Iranian file case, Europeans have other perceptions regarding the threats and the way to solve conflicts in the region.

In Istanbul’s discussions it was pretty clear that, despite other bilateral aspects discussed - everybody met with everybody, also, in this format -, the European agenda regarding Syria is defined, at this very moment, by three main subjects/objectives:

  • the functioning of the solution regarding Idlib enclave, preventing Damascus’ attack;
  • agreeing on a process for a constitutional reform, to please European and US’s demands for Syria’s democratization, at the same time maintaining the same regime. It is a sore capsule which they have to accept in order to stabilize the country;
  • refugees, not only the potential ones, who could come from Idlib, but also the ones whom European states, but also Turkey, are already hosting, but they want to send back to Syria.

It is a fragile, hard-to-materialize agenda, because, from the positions which Russia and Turkey have exposed during the summit, but also by Damascus’ regime representatives, by US officials, the arguments are different and hard to put in agreement on many sectors.

For Russia, but especially for the Syrian regime, the agreement regarding Idlib is a temporary solution. The  Syrian military forces placed close to the enclave wait only a major incident to attack. Damascus’ regime repeatedly affirmed that the entire national territory will, at some point, come back under its jurisdiction.

The constitutional reform which was supposed to start by creating a committee wherein 50 members to be nominated by the regime, 50 by the opposition, and 50 by the United Nations, was already rejected by Damascus. The regime cannot allow to have parity in this committee with the ones they military defeated. The European demand to organize free elections and to put the Syrian democratic opposition in power has, at this moment, no future prospects.

And the refugees will come back, maybe, but only the ones who left at someone’s order.

And if Europe has special security reasons to talk to Russia and Turkey, these two are also adding economic motives: they want the participation of European states at Syria’s reconstruction. And they want it to happen as quickly as possible, without waiting for the end of the political process, a task which, for European states, is almost impossible. Even the Syrian regime knows that, although it can count on Russia for its security, on its force’s training, starting even with the free education in Russian military institutions of young Syrian military students, Moscow does not have the economic potential, probably neither the political will, to commit in a long-term, expensive reconstruction. For that end, Damascus wants the European participation at this process, but at the same time it does not want to support Europe in the refugees’ issue. As for regime’s type, it stays as it was established in the 60’s.

Why US was not present in Istanbul? But then, where it was?

For the Europeans, US’s recent policy in Middle East raises some issues. This is what Joshua Landis, the director of Middle East Studies Center of Oklahoma University, said, also adding, in other words, that in Istanbul a European distrust vote has been made for US’s policies in the region. Of course, a consultative one. In order to prevent Europeans eventual nearness to Turkey’s positions, but, especially Russia’s, US’s Secretary of State, Jim Mattis, stated, in the same day, in Bahrain, in an intervention at the Annual Conference “Security’s Dialogue from Manama”, that “Russia’s presence in the region cannot replace US’s long-term, resilient and transparent commitment in Middle East”.

The statement is a warning, but also a simple ascertainment. There are many things in Middle East depending on US, its military force, its influence, its economic capacities, for Europe, or even for Turkey and Russia, to ignore it. But the actual conjecture puts Washington in defensive, through some punctual aspects, wherein American and European/ Turkish policies don’t come along:

  • The Kashoggi file shows that some regimes, which are destabilizing the area and which are not sharing democratic values, were and will remain White House’s friends. Europe uses this opportunity to get detached from Washington in their relations with Riyadh, and Turkish president Erdogan has the opportunity to show off as a fighter for the freedom of expression (!);
  • Sanctions against Iran, somehow toned-down, are  seen with criticism by the Europeans who do not want the Iranian regime to collapse and to create a refugee crisis larger than the Syrian one;
  • The US support for the Kurdish in Syria is seen as a destabilizer by Turkey. Ankara insists that somebody cannot call PKK a terrorist group and, at the same time, to militarily collaborate with its Syrian part, YPG. Separatist tendencies, which can afflict Syria’s neighbor’s security, were revealed also in the final communique from Istanbul, making clear Turkey’s point of view .

In a “damage control” action, US Defense Secretary decision to impose a 30 days deadline wherein to get to an agreement in Yemen, to allow the start of a political peace process, shows that US is preparing to end some of the collateral and expensive military, humanitarian, but also imagological files, from the region and come back to the important ones, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Syria, the Kurdish issue.

Istanbul summit is just a step for a more complex approach of the Syrian issues, with the involvement of all the sides who can make the difference between peace and war in Syria, especially the US. According to media, president Macron is negotiating the organization of a new extended format meeting, in Paris.

But, until then, Turkey is getting ready for the “2.0 Olive Branch” Operation, East of Euphrates.

In  a similar fashin as he acted at the previous anti-Kurdish operations, the 2016 Euphrates Shield, the 2018 Olive Branch, on Syria’s territory, president Erdogan sent a message which announces the imminence of a military operation, at East of Euphrates. In a meeting with party’s governmental parliamentarians, Erdogan states that the arrangements are completed and the operations against YPG already started. The massage, metaphorical and threatening, is not just for internal political consumption. For Turkey, the Kurdish issue is a national security matter, beyond the US or Russia relation.

This is why, the East Euphrates operation is inevitable.

Russia will, probably, allow the operation, as previously happened in Afrin.

The Syrian regime, in its turn, was not pleased with Kurdish’s attempts to extend their autonomy. Especially when they did it with American support and weapons.  Neither Iran will have a problem with that. Kurdish autonomies are not welcomed in any part of the region.

And there is the US, with the over 2.000 soldiers fighting together with the Syrian Defence Forces (majoritarian Kurdish). The Kurdish may count on this support for what is to come, without actually having any alternatives.

Until one night, when…



1/ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/27/europe-can-no-longer-rely-on-us-for-security-says-emmanuel-macron
2/  https://twitter.com/joshua_landis/status/1056260074673451009
3/ https://www.rferl.org/a/mattis-says-russia-cannot-replace-u-s-commitment-in-middle-east/29566838.html
5/ https://thedefensepost.com/2018/10/30/turkey-erdogan-finalizes-operation-destroy-ypg-syria/