US Syria envoy heads to Turkey after criticizing peace initiative

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu dismissed a call by President Donald Trump’s representative to “pull the plug” on negotiations with Russia and Iran, arguing it’s Syria’s best shot at a political resolution.

al-monitor Delegates attend a session of the Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, Nov. 29, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov.

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ypg, turkish influence in syria, donald trump, recep tayyip erdogan, us-turkish relations, halkbank, michael flynn, james jeffrey, astana

Dec 6, 2018

ISTANBUL — Turkey rejected a US call to discontinue efforts with Russia and Iran to end the war in Syria and called on its Western allies to instead support the process as the region’s best chance at quelling the violence.

The debate over the so-called Astana peace process, named for the Kazakh capital where leaders from Russia, Iran and Turkey first met to tackle the imbroglio, comes ahead of a visit to Ankara by James Jeffrey, Washington’s special envoy on Syria, to discuss a slate of US-Turkish divisions over Syria.

On Monday, Jeffrey called the Astana process “rather strange” and a “stalemate” for its failure to make progress on a establishing a constitutional committee for Syria. “The US view is, ‘Let's pull the plug on Astana,’” he said at a briefing in Washington.

But Turkey has embraced the initiative, especially since its Western allies have all stepped back from a robust peace effort for Syria. Ankara enjoys warm ties with Moscow and Tehran, despite their backing of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey is the main supporter of opposition fighters who have sought to topple him.

On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described Jeffrey’s remarks as “very unfortunate." “If we can still talk about a political settlement, it is due to the Astana process,” he told reporters at a news conference in Brussels after a NATO meeting. “Rather than marginalizing this process or attempting to come up with alternative platforms with small groups … we ought to be looking at what we can do within the [Astana process] and how to accelerate it.”

Cavusoglu said the Astana process is not aimed at replacing United Nations-backed negotiations dubbed the Geneva process. Yet it has largely overshadowed those efforts and sidelined the United States, putting Russia in the driver’s seat on Syria. At a handful of summits, the three countries’ leaders have agreed to de-escalation zones, although Assad’s forces have since retaken all but Idlib province, Syria’s last major rebel stronghold where some three million people are sheltering from the war.

Some observers believe it is only a matter of time before the same fate befalls Idlib, however.

“The Idlib deal froze what will eventually be a terrible, terrible offensive,” Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor. “The Idlib agreement was not nothing, but it is tenuous and incongruous with Assad … who continues to fight a war.”

Turkey and Russia have embraced the Astana process because it serves their interests, he said. “Both actors get something out of each other. Russia has enlisted Turkey in its effort to mitigate the insurgency. Turkey has enlisted Russia in its efforts to freeze the conflict and pressure the Kurds.” Turkey is angry over US cooperation with a Syrian Kurdish militia in the fight against Islamic State.

Eventually, a process that draws in more members of the international community will prove necessary for any lasting peace in Syria. Jeffrey, who is well regarded in Turkey, where he served as US ambassador until 2010, would like to see the Astana process end in favor of Geneva, Stein said.

“The US prefers Geneva over Astana. I am not sure anyone has offered a real, tangible process that seriously grapples with the agency of the regime. Every outside actor, in its discussions with polite society, like to pretend a man who killed 500,000-plus people doesn’t exist,” Stein said. 

The main focus of Jeffrey’s meetings, expected to be held on Friday, is to discuss the “road map” for the Syrian town of Manbij, Cavusoglu said. Washington agreed in May to the plan that foresees the removal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the town, but Turkey is frustrated with the slow pace.

The YPG has proven itself as the US-led coalition’s most effective ground force against Islamic State, but has ties with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey at a cost of 40,000 lives.

Turkish and US troops began joint patrols in Manbij last month even as Turkey shelled YPG targets east of the Euphrates River, threatening a confrontation with the 2,000 special forces the United States keeps in the region. Turkey wants the YPG to withdraw from the length of its border and has flushed out Kurdish fighters from other areas in Syria, including the western province of Afrin where thousands of people were killed or displaced.

Policy over Syria is part of a web of disagreements between Ankara and Washington that plunged relations between the NATO allies to their worst in decades. The atmosphere has improved since October, when Turkey freed an American pastor after convicting him of having links to a military coup plot that failed to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

However, a handful of other US citizens remain in custody, as do two Turkish consular workers at US missions, on terror-related charges. Turkey is also nervous about a looming fine from the US Treasury for its state-run Halkbank, accused of helping Iran bypass sanctions. A bank executive is serving a 32-month sentence in the United States for his role in the scheme and Turkey wants him sent home.

Separately, US prosecutors are still investigating Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, on his secret lobbying efforts on behalf of Turkey, according to news reports this week that cited court documents filed by Robert Mueller, the US special counsel investigating links between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign and business. Mueller recommended Flynn receive little or no prison time for his cooperation in that probe.

Flynn was hired by clients with ties to the Turkish government in 2016 to persuade US officials to expel Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania for two decades and who Turkey accuses of masterminding the abortive coup. Investigators found that Flynn had lied about working as a foreign agent for Turkey and being paid $530,000 for his trouble.

Trump and Erdogan talked for about an hour at last week’s G-20 meeting, where they discussed Syria as well as the Halkbank case, according to the Turkish leader.

Cavusoglu said Trump also raised the issue of the US-led F-35 program with Erdogan, telling him he wants to deliver the fighter jets to Turkey “without any problems,” despite a report that said Turkey could be barred from the program if it goes ahead with the acquisition of a Russian missile defense system. Bloomberg News cited a summary of the Pentagon’s report sent to Congress that said Turkey should be given “a real alternative that would encourage [it] to walk away from a damaging S-400 acquisition.”

“Congress has made some interventions, but this is a very comprehensive project and Turkey is one of the key actors. It is not easy to just cancel this process; there are economic and legal dimensions [that will] impact on our relations. Therefore, no problems are foreseen,” Cavusoglu said.

Turkey has spent more than $1.25 billion on the program, the world’s most expensive weapons project, since 2002 and is a producer of critical parts for the jets. But its insistence on buying Russia’s S-400 system, which is designed to shoot down US planes, may disqualify it from acquiring the jets. The United States is worried that Russia will obtain sensitive F-35 technology if Turkey uses both systems.

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