image Photo: Reuters

Turkey & Russia adopt joint memorandum on northern Syria

Turkey and Russia have adopted a joint memorandum on the situation in northern Syria, after an extensive six-hour meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Moscow and Ankara reiterated their commitment to preserve the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria, as well as the protection of Turkey’s national security interests. Both leaders also emphasized their determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations, and disrupt separatist agendas within Syrian soil. President Putin proclaimed the framework as a momentous achievement that will allow the relevant parties to resolve the acute situation on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkish President Erdogan revealed that the terms also include joint-patrols by Russian and Turkish military forces in the border region, and that any Kurdish forces still remaining within Ankara’s envisioned safe-zone would immediately withdraw from the territory. “Starting 1200 pm noon of October 23, within 150 hours, YPG terrorists and their arms will be taken out of 30 kilometer depth,” said Erdogan. He continued, saying that the YPG “fortifications and positions will be destroyed. After 150 hours, in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring with a depth of 10 km, Turkish and Russian joint patrol will begin,” adding that “All YPG terrorists in Tel Rifaat and Manbij will be taken off this area together with their arms.”

During later remarks made alongside Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov elaborated on his nation’s planned military coordination with Turkey in northern Syria. “The Russian Federation, represented by its military police, together with the Turkish forces will patrol this territory (on the Syrian side of its shared border with Turkey outside of Operation Peace Spring area) a week after the memorandum come into force, tomorrow at noon. The units of so-called Kurdish Defense Forces will be withdrawn from this area for 30 kilometers. 10 kilometers of this 30km zone will be the area of joint patrols by Russia and Turkey.”

Russian President Putin informed Damascus of the Moscow-Ankara pact in a telephone call to his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, during which he reaffirmed the Kremlin’s commitment to “Syria’s unity and sovereignty of both its lands and peoples.” According to multiple confirmed reports of their conversation, the Syrian leader did not hide his apprehension and repeated his “rejection of any invasion of Syrian territory under any name or pretext.” He also voiced the resolve of his regime to persist in the “battle against terrorism and occupation of any inch of Syrian territory by all legitimate means.”

Earlier in the day, the Syrian president toured the frontlines in the Islamist-infested Idlib Province of northwestern Syria. After greeting his troops in the area, Assad denounced the Turkish President, saying “For us it is known from the past, but what I want to say is that when we say that Erdogan is a thief who stole the factories, stole wheat, stole oil in collaboration with Daesh (Islamic State) and now he is stealing the land.”

Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she plans to introduce draft legislation to establish an internationally-controlled “security zone” along Syria’s border with Turkey at the two-day NATO meeting set to  commence tomorrow, despite Ankara’s ongoing efforts to forge its own safe zone in the area with Russia. Berlin’s top defense official said her “suggestion” would also involve both Russia and Turkey, but its aim would be “to restart the fight against terror, against IS (Islamic State), something that has stopped completely.” She added that “it should also ensure that we can stabilize the region in way which civil construction is possible again;” as well as the voluntary return of millions of refugees displaced during the eight-and-a-half year Syrian Civil War.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas acknowledged that his defense counterpart’s proposal annoyed members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union party, which the Defense Minister heads. According to Foreign Minister Maas, because of the latest developments vis-à-vis the Russian-Turkish agreement, there are currently no discussions to set up an alternative international security zone in Syria.  “Since yesterday, after the CDU leaders’ proposal, we have had some questions from our allies and there is some – this is indisputable – irritation amongst our partners,” adding that “In light of the described situation there is currently no discussion among the partners to set up an international security zone.”

Minister Maas further cautioned the West that adoption of Ankara’s proposed safe zone effectively legitimizes the Turkish operation against the Kurds, while also bolstering the Assad regime’s grip over his war-torn country. “One thing is clear to me,” said Maas, that “a security zone which permanently stabilizes Turkey’s military actions would not be worthy of the name.” He then underscored that “recognition and strengthening of the Assad regime through the back door must not happen either.”

In related news, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and met with U.S. troops at the Prince Sultan Air Base in the kingdom. Esper stressed that even though the American soldiers who had formerly been stationed in northeast Syria have been redeployed to Iraq, Washington’s ultimate intention is to eventually withdraw all servicemembers from the Middle East and safely return them back home. After noting that the details of that goal haven’t yet been finalized, Secretary Esper said he would discuss the matter with his Iraqi counterpart Khaled al-Obaidi in Baghdad later today. The Pentagon chief also declined to elaborate on President Donald Trump’s voiced intention to maintain an American residual force in Syria, to secure the war-torn country’s oil reservoirs as well as a strategic territory near Jordan and Israel.

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., U.S. President Donald Trump continues to face domestic criticism over his abrupt withdrawal of American forces from northeast Syria two weeks ago. The President’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement was called to testify in a public hearing before the Republican-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in what quickly evolved into an emotional session of repeated attacks against the presidential order.

After being asked by Sen. Bob Menendez if he had been consulted ahead of the pull-out, James Jeffrey admitted he had not.

The Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey then pressed on, “You were not consulted even though you are the Special Envoy here in the context of Syria? Let me ask you this, Isn’t it fair to say that the SDF (Syrian Defense Forces) has been a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS (Islamic State)?” “Absolutely,” replied Jeffrey, before being asked “Isn’t it fair to say that we cannot achieve an enduring defeat of ISIS through air power alone without some type of ground forces?” to which Jeffrey said, “We need ground forces. They do not necessarily have to be American Senator.”

“That’s right,” said Menendez, before asserting “And this is why this is exactly the point. It was the Kurds who were largely our ground forces. It’s the Kurds that lost about eleven to thirteen thousand of their people. It’s the Kurds that were detaining over 10,000 ISIS fighters and families for us. So, it doesn’t have to be us.”

The U.S. Senator then continued, “But when you betray the person who the entity who you are fighting on the battlefield with, and you basically leave them when you’re finished using them and say, ‘you know, you’re on your own.’

Driving his point home, Menendez stated “It’s a hell of a way to send a global message that, in fact, ‘don’t fight for the United States, because when they’re finished with you, they let you die on the battlefield.’