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Astana axis not yet united in purpose

Jan 02,2019 - Last updated at Jan 02,2019

The Astana axis, comprised of Russia, Iran and Turkey, has gained increasing importance over the past two years, as Damascus, with the help of Moscow and Tehran, has slowly clawed back Syrian territory seized by insurgents, Al Qaeda and Daesh. The axis is, however, not yet united in purpose.

While Moscow and Tehran have declared that they share the objective of helping Syria reemerge from years of war as a sovereign state in control of all its territory, Turkey has followed their lead without committing to their final goal.

This could be very difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who, soon after unrest erupted in Syria in March 2011, adopted a series of invasive policies. On March 28 of that year, 10 days after protests took place across the country, Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to adopt a "reformist approach". At that time, Assad and Erdogan were on good terms. This had not always been the case.

During the late 1990s, Turkey had threatened Syria, which hosted Turkish Kurdish activists, including the leader of the insurgent Kurdish Workers' Party, Abdullah Ocalan.

In 1998, Damascus expelled Ocalan, who wandered from country to country until he was captured by Turkish agents in Kenya, returned to Turkey and imprisoned. As a reward for Syria's cooperation, Ankara cultivated close political and economic relations with Damascus with the aim of extending Turkey's regional reach.

On the commercial plane, this was an unequal relationship. From 2005-2010, Turkey's exports to Syria doubled to $1.85 billion. Although a boon for Turkey, this one-sided trade was a disaster for many Syrian manufacturers in Aleppo and Homs, whose products and goods could not compete with cheap, Turkish government-subsidised exports. Syrian workers who lost jobs and unemployed farmers who migrated to the cities during the 2006-2010 drought joined protests across the country in mid-March. The security forces cracked down.

Within days, weapons appeared in the hands of demonstrators. Syrians flooded across the border into Turkey. In May, Turkey hosted a high-profile gathering of Syrian opposition activists, angering Damascus. In June, Erdogan urged Assad to halt the violence and launch reforms. By that summer, Erdogan had shifted to a policy of ousting Assad.

At the end of July, defected Syrian army officers and soldiers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, by October, was based in Turkey, where members received training and weapons. In August, Turkey fostered the formation of the Syrian National Council, a body hosted in Istanbul with strong representation from the banned and exiled Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan's Justice and Deveopment Party has close ties to the Brotherhood and Turkey has given refuge to fugitive members of Egypt's Brotherhood.

At the end of November, Erdogan called on Assad to stand down. Turkey facilitated the flow of tens of thousands of foreign fighters into Syria. Some joined the FSA, some other groups. Radical foreigners were recruited by Al Qaeda and Daesh once they entered the war in 2012 and 2013. Without Turkey's backing, the Syrian armed and political opposition would have been defeated and the war would have ended long ago. There would have been no influx of radical fundamentalists who now threaten the region and the international community.

In 2016, Turkey entered the campaign against Daesh by driving its fighters from the Jarablus-Azaz-Al Bab triangle in Syria, where the Turkish army occupied and installed surrogate FSA fighters. These were the only engagements between the Turkish military and radicals. Since late 2014-early 2015, Ergodan has focused on relations between the US and Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which are affiliated with Turkey's own restive Kurds. He condemns the US adoption of the YPG, which Turkey dubs as "terrorist", and has threatened to not only drive it from the Syrian-Turkish border zone but also "bury" YPG fighters.

In early 2018, Turkey seized the Syrian Kurdish district of Afrin, expelled the YPG and more than half its civilian population. In all the areas Turkey has captured, it has installed occupation administrations. Turkey is also the dominant external power in the insurgent-radical held north-western Syrian province of Idlib and Erdogan would like to add it to Ankara's territorial holdings in Syria.

Given his adoption of regime change by force and his seizure of Syrian territory, it is clear that Turkey and Russia-Iran are on opposite and potentially clashing sides.

Russia and Iran have backed the government from the outset, at first politically and then with military muscle. Russian air power and pro-Iranian ground forces have fought to regain for the government swathes of territory held by Turkish-allied armed groups, as well as radical fundamentalists.

The situation has changed dramatically in the past year, both on the ground and politically. The government has won control of 65 per cent of Syria and rules 85 per cent of Syrians living in the country. Tens of thousands of refugees are going home. Regime change is no longer a possibility. Russia and Iran are the chief beneficiaries of Syria's survival as a country. If they had been defeated, Syria would be fragmented among quarreling warlords. Erdogan's main regional policy has been a disaster for him personally as well as Syria.

In response to this change in circumstances, Erodgan has shifted his position to the extent that he no longer demands Assad's removal, although the Turkish leader would like this to happen. He still sees opportunities to act as a spoiler, although these are fading fast. Under pressure from the US, Germany, Russia and Iran, and facing the deployment of the Syrian army around the YPG-held town of Manbij in northern Syria, Erdogan has been compelled to pause his offensive against the YPG. The campaign was supposed to begin with an assault on Manbij.

Following his climb down, Erdogan had to admit that "we are still supporting the integrity of Syrian soil". This admission showed that he understands Turkey has no right to occupy "Syrian soil", making it, in principle, easier for Ankara to withdraw from areas it has already occupied.

Erdogan will have to postpone his planned offensive east of Manbij since, under pressure from allies and Congress, US President Donald Trump appears to have decided to slow the US troop pullout from Syria on the premise that Daesh has not yet been defeated. Erdogan does not want his troops to tangle with the US contingent backing the YPG. Reprieved from imminent Turkish attack, the Kurds, if they are wise, will have time to make a deal to hand over the area they hold, 25 per cent of Syria, to Damascus's rule.

Once Assad has 90 per cent of the country, he and Russia and Iran will focus on recapturing Idlib, the last bastion of the armed groups which had been backed by Turkey and other regional and international powers.

Meanwhile, the process of normalising relations with Damascus is advancing. Jordan has reopened its border with Syria, the United Arab Emirates has resumed operations at its embassy in the Syrian capital, Bahrain and Kuwait are following suit and Syria is likely to be reinstated as a member of the Arab League in time for its summit in March.

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