This is a loose translation of an article by Mohammad Ballout that appeared in Lebanon’s Assafir newspaper on August 29:
The Syrians and the Turks are on the verge of a security understanding that will lead to a political one. The indications of this unprecedented understanding are not yet clear. But its first headline, without any surprises, is a trade off: the Turks backing off in Aleppo and closing the crossings used by some of the armed groups (the most important ones) in the north in exchange for the Turkish forces to be given the freedom to destroy the Kurdish project in Syria. In other words, the city of Aleppo goes to Syria and the corpse of the Kurdish project in Syria goes to the Turks.
The speech which Erdogan gave in Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, was the first in which he didn’t mention the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad or the Syrian Army. Instead he attacked the PPK and said: “our goal in Syria is uprooting it”.
The basics of this trade-off were put on the table in meetings between security officials. The Turks had, in what they considered a preliminary initiative from their side, and on the advice of the Russians and Iranians, informed Damascus about their Jarablus operation on August 16, one week before the Turkish tanks took off from Qarqamish towards Jarablus. For this understanding/deal to crystallize, a lot of the details still need to be ironed out in additional meetings for which a complete schedule has been set. So after Baghdad, there’s a meeting in Damascus and another in Moscow and then possibly Istanbul. And according to reliable Arab sources, the Iraqi capital hosted last Thursday a trilateral security meeting that included representatives of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, the Iraqi military intelligence, three senior Syrian intelligence officers and a Turkish security delegation led by Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence (MIT). The Syrian officers arrived in the Iraqi capital as part of a Syrian diplomatic delegation headed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, who himself didn’t participate in the negotiations which were limited to security officers and no diplomats. According to Arab sources, the participants expressed a lot of positivity towards opening a new page of mutual cooperation and the possibility of bringing back security coordination especially in relation to the PPK and its activities in Syria.
At the opening of the meeting, the Turkish delegation requested information on seven Turkish officers who had been fighting alongside the armed Syrian opposition and with whom Turkish intelligence had lost contact in February of last year. It is well known that Turkish special forces were directly involved in fighting against the Syrian army in Latakia, Idlib and in East Aleppo and that a number of them had been killed during these operations, but their deaths had not been announced officially by the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several Turkish officers who were very effective participants in what was called the Great Epic of Aleppo were besieged in the city until waves of suicide fighters of the Turkish intelligence-directed Turkestan Islamic Party managed to open a passage in Ramouseh, in the southern part of the city, in order to evacuate them.
There is information that the Syrian side presented to the Turks documents about four Turkish officers who had been captured alive in the battle of Aleppo and were being held by the Syrian Army and Syrian intelligence. The Syrian side denied having any information about the remaining three officers that Turkish intelligence had lost contact with, but promised to work on getting more information on them.
There is also information that both the Syrian and Turkish security delegations had received instructions from the highest levels of their departments to show the maximum degree of cooperation and put on the discussion table all the dossiers. The Syrian delegation informed its leadership that they got a strong impression that the Turks were willing to develop cooperation and make a deal with Syria as soon as possible. Also the Baghdad meeting is to be followed by another one in Damascus next Sunday , where the Iranians will be given a role in the negotiations alongside the Turks, Iraqis and Syrians.
And in this framework, there is information that the level of the negotiations will be raised in the following days after an understanding is reached on the basic principles, and that Moscow will host Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, on Tuesday September 6 so that he can update the Russians on the results of the ongoing meetings between the Turks, the Syrians, the Iranians and the Iraqis. A meeting is also to be set between the Russians and the Turkish Security delegation itself.
According to knowledgeable Arab sources, the Syrians and the Turks have made a preliminary deal under which Damascus, who had announced that the PPK is a terrorist organization during its clashes with the YPG in Hasakah last week, pledged to continue to consider all the armed Kurdish factions in Northern Syria as terrorist groups. Damascus also pledged to stop arming and supporting two Kurdish factions in Afrin as well as any factions that cooperate with the PPK.
In exchange, the Turks pledged to stop arming and supporting the armed factions fighting the Syrian army in Aleppo, and will agree to designate factions as terrorists in line with Russian lists.
Ankara will act on three international resolutions urging Turkey to close the crossings with Syria used by terrorists. Ankara will also respond to a Russian request, which in the past it had – along with the US and Saudi Arabia – impeded, since the Geneva conference last November, when Jordan who was assigned the task of compiling the UN requested list of terrorist groups , was unable to proceed beyond consultations with interior ministries of Syria’s neighbors – and ultimately failed to produce a terrorist list because of Saudi pressure.
The deal also includes studying different mechanisms to monitor the border crossings which Turkey will agree to allow Russian officers and units to supervise.
It is clear that this kind of agreement between the parties should have happened much earlier and is what was needed from the beginning of the crisis: namely, the return of Damascus to the spirit of the Adana agreement politically and militarily, and preventing the PKK from making the north of Syria a base from which it can attack the Turkish territories. In exchange, Turkey abandons the ambitions that it openly admits having in Aleppo, and stops supporting the armed groups that form the spearhead in the fight against the Syrian army, specifically in the north of Syria.
It can be said that the Turks have taken a first step to separate the moderate opposition from the extremist groups. Turkey’s recent diversion of thousands of fighters from the fronts of Aleppo and Idlib represents a Turkish initiative to separate the factions it directly mentors from the extremist groups who coordinate their operations. Turkey diverted hundreds of fighters from the remnants of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front that was led by their man in Idlib – Jamal Maarouf, who still controls 4000 fighters – to Jarablus. Also, the Turks recalled major wings of the Levant Front after the latter’s disagreements with Jaish al-Fateh over operations in Aleppo. Turkish intelligence also withdrew “Division 13” and the Turkmani brigades, which originally operated around the Turkish-Syrian border – specifically the northern Latakia countryside and Jarablus and its rural areas. These brigades include Liwa Murad Al-Rabe’, Sultan Salim, Estakem Kama Umert and other groups within Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham that are close to Turkish intelligence. But major groups like Jaish al-Fateh, Jaish al-Mujahideen and the Islamic Turkestani Party are still stationed in the military colleges in Aleppo and the Ramouseh crossing.
It’s likely that this deal will face questions about the American role, and Turkey’s ability to advance it’s understanding and coordination with the Russians, Iranians and Syrians – namely, the resistance axis – without US approval is unlikely. The ability of Erdogan to shift from Turkey’s traditional/historical position against the resistance axis, and rebel against Washington is questionable.
One can have doubts about the extent to which the Turks can adhere to the pledges made at a moment where they felt betrayed by their American ally and their obsession with the Kurds took over.
Until now, real indicators of a change in the Turkish position on the ground still need a lot of time, especially in Aleppo. However, there are indications that the Americans are feeling uncomfortable about the Turkish-Iranian-Russian rapprochement and have instructed their agencies to stop providing the Turks with military/security information in Syria. Additionally, US bombers will not participate in any air strikes aimed at the Kurds and their allies west of the Euphrates, in Manbij and rural Jarablus , which contradicts their original pledges (Joe Biden’s threatening tone against the Kurds during his recent Ankara visit), but these began to dissipate with the first Turkish-Kurdish skirmishes near the village of Al-Amarenah and the destruction of two Turkish tanks by the Kurds. But the real Turkish-Kurdish war has not begun yet.