By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
Turkey and South Africa are two regional powers with international roles, responsibilities and influence. This conference will bring together experts, policy-makers, current and former officials, as well as representatives of international agencies to share their perspectives and provide new insights on the current situation and future of Turkish and South African politics and relations. The conference will have three sessions: The first session will focus on the ways in which dominant party politics affect internal and international dynamics within these two regional powers. The second session will evaluate the roles and responsibilities of Turkey and South Africa towards the MENA region. The last session will concentrate on new initiatives and opportunities for partnerships between Turkey and South Africa in Africa.
|09:00 – 09:30||Registration|
|09:30 – 09:45||Welcome, Introduction:
|09.45 – 11:00||Keynote Address|
|11:15 – 12.45||Session I: Opportunities and challenges of dominant party politics in Turkey and South Africa
|12.45 – 14.00||Lunch|
|14.00 – 15.30||Session II: Turkish and South African roles in the face of a turbulent MENA region
|15.30 – 15.45||Coffee Break|
|15.45 – 17.15||Session III: South Africa and Turkey: The potential for cooperation in Africa
|17:15 – 17:45||Closing Remarks|
The conference will take place at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, South Africa.
Sheraton Pretoria Hotel
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
While being a violation of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory along the Syria-Turkey border and its attacks on Islamic State group (IS) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions there have not been heavily criticised except by the USA and various Kurdish groups. It has received mild criticism from the Russian and Syrian governments, and significant support from the Turkish population and many Turkish opposition groups. The intervention – called Operation Euphrates Shield – is expected to be a longterm one, and is set to worsen already-tense relations between Turkey and the USA.
The operation follows several fatal operations in Turkey by IS and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the wake of state security weaknesses after the July coup attempt. The Syrian YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and has strong links with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While the US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, it regards the PYD/PYG as an essential element of its anti-IS armed forces in Syria, and a component of what it calls ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’. Relying on two diametrically opposed actors – Turkey and the YPG, both US allies – to fight a common enemy presents the USA with a tactical and strategic dilemma. Soon after Turkey’s incursion began on 24 August, the USA called on YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates River, a key demand of Turkey, but on Wednesday US spokespersons criticised Turkey’s moves against the group. With the YPG refusing to relocate, USA faces the prospect of losing the largest component of its SDF if it pushes too hard. The head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel,announced at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates, but the lack of agreement on whether this is true will exacerbate relations between the two NATO allies.
Turkey had been unable to convince its allies to impose a no-fly zone on the Syria-Turkey border which, Turkey claimed, would help keep millions of refugees safe; Operation Euphrates Shield is likely to create a de facto ‘safe zone’ for refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkish planes had begun the first movements in the operation, bombing IS targets in the northern Syrian area of Jarablus. Two hours later 1 500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters crossed over from the Turkish region of Karkamis, accompanied by an armed battalion of twenty-five M60A3 tanks, and close fire support from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The FSA troops include Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which Turkey considers ‘moderate’ – particularly after the FSA sidelined al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups two weeks earlier.
The operation involves 350 TSK soldiers, 200 troops from mechanised units, and 150 special forces. They are supported by heavy aerial operations conducted collectively by the anti-IS coalition. In addition, seventeen Turkish war planes are participating in the operation, including eleven F16s. Turkey is also using newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unarmed drones. An armed brigade is on reserve at the border area of Karkamis and security analysts suggest the nearby base at Kilis Elbeyli will coordinate air support and medical evacuation with FSA units. Based on the type of armaments used by the TSK, Turkey is likely intending to have a longterm presence in Syria’s north with, possibly, a military base in Jarablus that serve as a coordination and training area for FSA fighters. Turkey hopes the FSA can prove its mettle in the field, and then be able to capture the IS stronghold of al-Bab. Should the FSA take that city, it will favour the opposition politically, and deprive the YPG of its status as the most efficient anti-IS force.
This is the first occasion that a NATO member puts boots on the ground in Syria since the war there began in 2011, and comes at a critical time for Turkey, which just six weeks ago experienced an attempted coup that dealt a severe blow to the TSK’s prestige. Caught between its membership in NATO and the deterioration of domestic security, Turkey extracted much benefit from the recent turnaround in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s assurances that Russian aircraft will not fire on FSA and Turkish troops during this complex operation. The Russian foreign ministry has officially said it ‘is concerned about Turkey’s incursion into Syria’ and that actions against IS should be coordinated with Damascus. Syria itself responded with a statement complaining about the violation of its ‘sovereign rights’, but not suggesting it would do anything more about it.
Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria reflects a change in Ankara’s regional policy from one that claimed humanitarian issues at the core of its policy to a return to hard security goals by national interest. A key political and security aim is to prevent the creation of a contiguous area controlled by the PYD on the 822-kilometre Turkey-Syria border. To achieve this it becomes necessary for the FSA and other rebel factions to unite under a single political banner that regards the territorial integrity of Syria as a precondition for peace talks. Realising this political aim will require the FSA to secure more than just the Jarablus area, and to extend its control to terrain to the west up to the Rai-Azaz / Jarablus-Cobanbey line. Should it gain control of this area, Turkey will be able to cut off IS supply routes and isolate the PYD in the town of Afrin. Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted YPG targets in Afrin on the second day of Euphrates Shield.
The quiet responses to Turkey’s incursion by Russia and Syria (whose response was limited to a written statement) reflects their similar objective that Syria’s integrity be maintained; they thus would be unhappy to allow the PYD to set up an autonomous Kurdish area. Syria’s Iranian allies are also unhappy about what message Kurdish autonomy in Syria might send to Iranian Kurds – especially since recent clashes between the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and reports that the USA might be supporting the PDKI. Tehran has already said it tacitly supported Turkey in its anti-PKK effort although the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Turkey should halt operations that challenge Syria’s against central government authority, suggesting that Iran remains sceptical of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria.
Qatar, another regional actor which has supported the FSA, will support Turkey in its push against IS and the YPG as the two countries share similar perspectives on key issues. Qatar has sought to diversify its defence partnerships with the setting up of a Turkish-Qatari military base in the emirate state, which also reflects the rapidly changing security architecture of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama are due to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in China on 4 September, but it is unlikely that any substantive movement on a Syrian peace deal will be announced as fighting between the government and rebels continue in the key area of Aleppo.