Sabotaging Sochi

Russia won’t take lightly US-led attempts to foil its Syria reconciliation conference

By Abdel Bari Atwan

There is only one explanation for the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC)’s decision to boycott the Syrian dialogue conference that Russia is hosting in the resort of Sochi, and the Kurds in northern Syria doing the same in protest at the Turkish assault on Afrin. It is that the US administration has decided to sabotage this conference and foil it, and to re-ignite the fuse of war in Syria using the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and some client Arab militias as proxies.

The US’ pretext for retaining its troops in Syria is to avoid repeating the mistake it made in Iraq and prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State (IS) as a ’terrorist force.’ But the real thrust of American policy is to revive plans for the partition of both Syria and Turkey and revert to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres — which essentially envisaged the establishment of a Kurdish state in parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and was foiled by modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Seven years after Turkey strode into the American/Western trap in Syria, rendering invaluable services to the US plan to destabilize its southern neighbour and former ally – especially by channelling fighters, weapons and funds provided by the Gulf states – Ankara has begun having second thoughts. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now realises that the US’ machinations in Syria have come back to haunt his own country, threatening it with destruction and division.

In his latest editorial, Ibrahim Karagül, editor of the thoroughly pro-Erdoğan paper Yeni Şavak, declared that the greatest threat to Turkey is now posed by the US. “It is a hostile state which harbours plans to destroy Turkey along the lines of what it did in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote, and demanded the closure of Incirlik airbase which he said the US was using to support the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and Daesh (IS).

On Sunday, Erdoğan reiterated his pledge to eradicate ‘terrorism’ along the length of his country’s border with Syria, and to prevent the establishment of American/Israeli military bases in the area to threaten Turkey’s security, stability and national unity. The question being asked now is what will the Turkish president actually do to counter this supposed threat to dismember his country, which he is talking about openly and rallying public opinion against?

Before replying to this question, it should be noted that Erdoğan’s vow to launch an offensive against Manjab and cleanse it of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PYD) has not yet been put into practice. The assault may be postponed for months or even years, because the Americans refused to withdraw their forces from the location (as the Russians did from Afrin) to facilitate the task of the Turkish army accompanied by Free Syrian Army (FSA) units. Moreover, they continued to back the Kurdish forces, supplying them with hundreds of truckloads of armoured vehicles, artillery and ammunition. Storming the city would now mean entering into a confrontation with US forces.

 The Syrian authorities have been observing the situation in Afrin and Manbaj with extreme caution. They have not yet decided to intervene in Afrin to counter the Turkish incursion. But Damascus’ patience seems to be running out.  A statement issued on Sunday after the Syrian president met with the visiting Iranian deputy foreign minister said they discussed “the threats posed by the continuing Turkish aggression against Syrian territory and the crimes it is committing against Syrian citizens, and means of confronting this aggression and preventing it from achieving its goals of occupying Syrian territory, supporting terrorist groups and wrecking efforts to reach a peaceful solution that restores security and stability to Syria.”

The Syrian leadership, according to people close to it, does not trust Erdoğan or his moves. For his part the Turkish president refuses to engage in open dialogue with Damascus, as he continues to bank on his Syrian Islamist allies and on keeping them on board, and holds on to the hope of being able to topple President Bashar al-Asad.

So long as Erdoğan continues to wager on this bet that failed to deliver for the past seven years  despite American, European and Gulf backing, he is unlikely to succeed – especially after the US turned against Turkey and chose to side with the Kurds instead. The Turkish president’s only realistic option is the pragmatic one of joining the camp that opposes the American ‘enemy’, consisting of Russia, Iran, Syria and to a lesser extent Iraq. It would not shame him to change policy and join forces with ‘yesterday’s enemies’ against ‘today’s enemies’, the Americans, who – according to the media outlets that take their cue from him and reflect his views – are intent on partitioning and destroying his country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not take lightly attempts to sabotage the Sochi conference, which he called for in agreement with the Syrian leadership and sees as the culmination of his military success. Gen. Alexander Ivanov, the Russian military spokesman in Syria, warned that the Syrian opposition’s decision to stay away from the Sochi would have “many consequences on the ground”, and noted that there was “still much to do to destroy extremist groups” in the country.

That constitutes a clear Russian threat to the Syrian opposition, a threat of military escalation. Having fought for three years at considerable cost and lost around 80 service personnel in the process, Russia is not prepared to squander the sacrifices it has made in Syria.

The ball is now in Erdoğan’s court. He needs to make his mind up quickly and seriously, if he truly wants to preserve Turkey’s security, stability and unity and avoid taking it back in time by a century to the days of the Treaty of Sevres. Turkey’s territorial integrity is inextricable from that of Syria, Iraq and Iran, and can only be maintained within a framework of coexistence, equality and social justice founded on a sound democratic basis.