Astana Summit and After It

Oytun Orhan who is a researcher of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) has said that one of the main reasons for Turkey to take initiative for the political solution in Syriaand to make a joint effort with Russia and Iran is to struggle against the YPG (People's Protection Units). According to Orhan, it does not seem realistic for Turkey to regard the YPG as a part of the political process and as one of the parties around the table in such an environment.

Stating that Turkey which regardsthe YPGas a terrorist organization will object to the YPGto be at the table in the next Geneva talks, and Russia and Iran will be in a more neutral positionregarding the position of YPG, Orhan stresses that these countries do not insist on the participation of YPG in the talks. Orhan says that he does not think Russia will request for its participation in Geneva, and that such a claim concerning the YPG will mean the collapse ofa joint venture among Turkey, Russia and Iran from the very beginning.

The ORSAM expert who thinks that the US’ beingout of the process weakens the YPG's position believes that pressures from the US regarding the participation of the PYD may be the caseif the US, under Trump’s leadership, takes its seat around the table for a political solution. Oytun Orhan assessed the new situation following the Astana meeting and the possible approaches of regional states and international powers on the way to Geneva.


Interview: Yeter Polat


- Do you think the Astana negotiations have been as planned?

It would be better not to keep expectations high for the Astana negotiations. The main objective of the Astana Summit is to ensure that the ceasefire declared on December 30, 2016 becomes permanent and to ensure the formation of mechanisms by the guarantors to sustain the given ceasefire. From this point of view, it is possible to say that the Astana negotiations were successful. Russia and Iran will oversee violations regarding the ceasefire due to their influences on the regime. Likewise, thanks to her cogencyon the opposition, Turkey will take measures against possible violations of the ceasefire by these factions. It is possible to say that the chances of success are higher than the previous ceasefires because of the sincerity of the three countries and them being the most effective countries.


- Can we say that the ceasefire will continue?

It would not be realistic to say that the ceasefire in Syria means the end of the armed conflict. First, we have to say that ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have been kept outside the ceasefire. The Euphrates operations of Turkey, the operation of the US against ISIS in Rakka withthe YPG, operations against al-Nusra targets in Idlib and internal conflicts between the opposition groups will probably continue. However, it is possible to say that the conflict between the moderate opponents on the one side and the Syrian regime, Iranian militia forces and Russia on the other and air strikes will be over until the negotiations planned to be held in Geneva next month.


- Astana is already interpreted to be a “pre-Geneva rehearsal animation”. Again, there are those who considerthis summit to be an effort by Turkey and Russia to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together. We currently witness some changes inthe field. To compare with the former conjuncture, in which forces’ positions do we see changes?

Many turning points have been experienced since the Syrian civil war began. Such moments were experienced that it was highly believed the regime would be broken down and the opponents would be successful. Nevertheless, the regime was successful in some way and reacted against the opposition. Later on, such situations were experienced that some commented that the regime would completely suppress the opponents and put an end to the civil war. However, it was not possible to speak of any serious progress or success for any party until the Russian intervention. Even before the Russian intervention, some evaluations that supported the idea that the regime was very close to the destruction were made. But after September 2015, Russia changed the power balance in Syriain a quite critical way. With the recent possession of Aleppo by the regime, we have faced a situation in which military balances have changed in favour of the regime. However, this balance still shows us that it is not possible to get a military result in Syria. Today, a large part of the Syrian land is still controlled by many different organizations and the Syrian regime does not have the military power to control these large areas. Moreover, Russia has no intention of continuing this war for many years. She now believesto have reached herlimitsin Syria and aims to protect herown interests there by reaching a political solution with moderate opponents. In particular, that the US and the West have regarded the Syrian issue only as a struggle againstISIS and the emergence of new risk areas through the refugee problem and ISIShave changed the Syrian policy of the West and the US and decreased their interests. This prompted them to focus only on ISISand refugee issues,which ledsome of the opponents to believe the most appropriate option in Syria is the political solution as a way out. Turkey’s focus onISISand YPG again has made the opponents approach towards thepolitical solution. As to the regime, the fact that Russia has reached her limits and wants a political solution and that it has proved to be impossible for the regime to control every piece of the Syrian land seem to have encouraged the parties for some concessions and political solution.


- Will PYD be invited to the Geneva meeting to be held next month?

One of the main reasons for Turkey to take initiative in the political solution and to work jointly with Russia and Iran was to be able to struggleagainst the YPG. In such an environment, it does not seem realistic for Turkey to accept YPG as part of a political process and as one of the parties at the table. As the YPG is a terrorist organization from the Turkish perspective, we can easily predict that Turkey will object to its participationin the Geneva negotiations scheduled to take place next month. Russia and Iran are in a more neutral position on this issue. It is understood that they have never insisted on the participation of the YPGin the negotiations. Turkey thinks similarly with her partners concerning the existence of the Syrian Kurds to be at the table, but has objections about their representationby the YPG.


-Is that why ENKS (Kurdish National Congress in Syria) was invited to Astana?

Yes. The fact that ENKS was in Astana means that the Syrian Kurds are also at the table and their expectations and requests will be taken into account. Turkey's objection is not about the Syrian Kurds, but about theirrepresentation. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the YPG will be included in the political solution in an environment where Turkey will want to continue her struggle against YPG following her fight against ISISwithin the scope of the Euphrates Shield.


-Do you then evaluate the views expressed by Jaafari at the closing part as a statement equivalent to Turkey's expectation? Can it be said that Turkey and the Syrian regime have a common approach to the issues regarding the Kurds?

If we look only from this perspective, it is possible to say that Turkey and Syria are in the same position. Turkey agrees with Syria for a Syria where the rights of all social groups are protected and where they live freely together on the basis of equal citizenship. However,she will be in opposition to any development which would bring about a division or a federal system on ethnic or sectarian basis, in which the territorial integrity of Syria would be at risk and because of which possibility of a change of her borders would be the case.


-You said that Russia and Iran did not insist about the participation of the YPG in Astana. What do you think will happen if this insistenceis not the case in Geneva either? Or if Russia and Iran insist, could PYD be in Geneva?

I do not think they will make such a request. Such a request would mean the collapse of the joint venture among Turkey, Russia and Iran from the very beginning. Therefore, I do not think that such a requestwould be made and the parties would face a challenge hard to deal with given the Turkish stance. Another factor that weakens the position of YPG is that the US is out of the process. The biggest supporters of YPG/PYD are the US and the West. However, Europe has almost lostall of its effect. The US may return to the field with Trump, and then some US pressures might be the case regarding the presence of the YPG at the table of political solution if the US becomes an active part of the process. However, I do not find those expectations regarding YPG’s participation in the Geneva talks so realistic. What is more, in case of any US pressure in this regard, I think Turkey will resist and withdraw from the talks.


-It is apparent that Astana hosted a meeting where the subjects in the Moscow Declaration were repeated. Was there anything else?

We can also see Astana as an inclusion of direct interlocutors to the issues that foreign actors in Moscow have agreed upon. The Syrian opposition and the regime have committed to this external reconciliation in Astana. Therefore, although there is not any differencein terms of content, Astana differs from Moscow due to the interlocutors included and the armed groups that werearound the table.


-Iran had some weak objectionsto the presence of the US in Astana. The US, on the other hand, revealed a "reasonable" attitude. There are those who associate this with the uncertainty of the post-Trump era. What is the real reason behind the Iranian objection to the US presence and what will happen in the near future under Trump's presidency within the context of the Middle East?

In his statements made duringthe campaign period and after his election, Trumpgave the high sign of returning to traditional alliance relations in the Middle East. It seems that a transitionperiod in which relations with Israel will be restored and fully coordinated will take place. However, there are serious signs that the softening process between Iran and the US will come to an end. On the other hand, the positive messages sent especially to Russia brought about an expectation that Trump would be more likely to cooperate with Russia in the Middle East. Besides, with Trump, it is thought that the US will focus only on the struggle againstISIS in Syria, and as to the political solution the US seems to be willing to stay out of the issue about ensuring peace in the whole Syria and therefore, it may prefer to back up the initiative among Russia, Iran and Turkey from outside the given alliance.

So, in this case, the United States may still not be a very effective actor. It will only give support from the outside. For now,the US priority is to fight against ISIS and the Rakka Operation. Of course, in this case, the United States will get into a dilemma. They will either continue to cooperate with YPG in Rakka, or will have to act together with Turkey. The first signs from the US are in the direction that they will continue to cooperate with YPG. This will mean the deepeningof the crisis between the US and Turkey. The given situation will lead Turkey to develop more cooperation with Russia and other regional countries in order to protect her interests.


-The US Colonel John Dorrian,the Spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force in Iraq,made a remarkable statement in the past daysand announced that they, as the US, met the Iraqi government concerning the PKKpresence in Sinjar. Does this affect the US-YPG relations?

Currently, the YPG seems to be the only alternative for the US in its fight against ISIS. But in Iraq, the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga Forces stand as potential allies for the US in its fight against ISISin Sinjar. The US relations with the Iraqi Kurdish region, the Iraqi government and Turkey are the obstacles lying ahead of the US to enter into a military engagement with PKK and the Yazidi militia forces linked to the PKK in Sinjar. The US does not feel the need of it either. Because of theirrelations with other allies, they demand that the PKK withdraw from there. There is also a concern overthe PKK presence in the region and a potentialmilitary operation to be launched by Turkey due to this fact. In order to prevent this, it seems that the US may want in this region the withdrawal of the factionsconnected to the PKK and to Peshmergas’ taking control of the given region in a way that their allies would accept.


-Turkey seems to be satisfied with the Astana negotiations. What does Turkey expect from the Geneva talks in the medium term?

In the first stage, it will be controlledwhether the ceasefire will be permanent till Geneva or not. If any progress is made in the ceasefire until the Geneva meeting, it is thought that with the Geneva negotiations more difficult subjects such as the situation of the regime, Assad’s future, what will be done with the armed factions can start to be discussed. It, of course, would not be right to expect these subjects to be discussed until the first Geneva meeting. At least the most realistic expectation would be that the Syrian opposition and the regime encounterand criticize one another in a face to face meeting and that an opportunity for dialogue be opened between the parties. Beyond that, it would be unrealistic to expect a political settlement from the very first Geneva meeting.