Turkish victory at NATO summit shuffles cards of Autonomous Administration in Syria

Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Finland, and Turkey sign a memorandum of understanding in the Spanish capital Madrid - June 2022 (Reuters)

Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Finland, and Turkey sign a memorandum of understanding in the Spanish capital Madrid - June 2022 (Reuters)

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Enab Baladi – Mamoun al-Bustani

A memorandum of understanding between Turkey, Sweden, and Finland was reached during a summit held in the Spanish capital Madrid on the sidelines of the NATO meeting on 29 and 30 June, thus ending a challenging process that lasted for several weeks due to Ankara’s reservation on the two Scandinavian countries submitting an official request to join NATO following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February.

Under the memorandum, Turkey, a 70-year-old member of NATO, agreed to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance in exchange for the two countries’ pledge to address Turkish security concerns, mainly to stop their support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its arm in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which in turn constitutes the military wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Turkey’s approval of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO and the return of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “victorious” from the NATO summit, according to Western media headlines, opens the door to speculation about the consequences of this for the Autonomous Administration and for the future of Russian-Turkish relations, as well as American-Turkish relations, and the repercussions on Syrian ground, especially as the US, Russia, and Turkey are in control of the authorities governing different Syrian regions on the ground.

Autonomous Administration: The memorandum is hostile to Kurds

The tripartite memorandum of understanding states that Finland and Sweden undertake to cooperate fully with Turkey in the fight against terrorist organizations in exchange for Ankara’s approval of their accession to NATO.

According to the terms of the memorandum, the two countries must cooperate with Turkey to combat PKK and not support YPG and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara considers to be a military and political extension of PKK in Syria.

The two countries also undertake to deal expeditiously with requests for deportation or extradition of “terrorist” suspects by taking into account information and evidence provided by Turkey.

The Autonomous Administration criticized the signing of the memorandum; according to Hawar News Agency, the deputy co-chair of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration, Badran Jia Kurd, stated that it was only a “Turkish acquiescence to the will of the dominant powers in exchange for the governments of Sweden and Finland’s reversal of their democratic values.”

Jia Kurd said the memorandum was “an anti-Kurds agreement, “noting that “Turkish threats against the areas of northeastern Syria have not stopped for a moment.”

He considered that the Turkish president has always tried to create the atmosphere for an attack on Autonomous Administration-held areas, pointing out that it is unpredictable whether or not there is a US approval for a Turkish offensive through the meeting between Erdogan and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, on the sidelines of the NATO meeting in Madrid.

Jia Kurd also noted that there must be a clear position of the Syrian regime, as there is “an understanding between the AANES and the government in Damascus to protect the Syrian-Turkish border, and the two sides are discussing broadening the understanding to deter any potential Turkish attack.”

Following the conclusion of the NATO meeting on 1 July, and in response to a question about his statements on carrying out new operations to complete the security belt in northern Syria once the preparations were completed, and to answer another question about whether military or diplomatic preparations were intended, and whether there were Russian reservations, Erdogan told reporters that “we might come by surprise one night.”

He stressed that “there is no need to rush, as we are already working in that area at the moment,” noting that Turkish forces are currently operating in northern Iraq and in Afrin, northern Syria and that the new operation will take place “when the time is right.”

Bargains and compromises

For its part, PYD attacked Turkey, Sweden, and Finland after signing the memorandum of understanding; in a statement issued on 30 June, PYD said that Turkey had taken advantage of the global preoccupation with the Ukrainian war to practice “blackmail” regarding the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO.

The party criticized what it described as “compromises and bargains far from democratic standards and human rights treaties that Europe, including Sweden and Finland, boast about,” considering that the mention of the names YPG, PYD, and the Kurdish Freedom Movement in the memorandum was “regrettable and unjust for Kurds.”

In its statement, the party noted that “all Kurdish forces in Europe, including those in Finland and Sweden, have not engaged in any activity contrary to the laws and regulations in those countries.”

Researcher on Kurdish affairs, Badr Mulla Rashid, told Enab Baladi that “it is difficult to limit and determine the feasibility of the memorandum of understanding to AANES in Sweden in the foreseeable term if we take into account the affiliation of PKK supporters with several nationalities.”

According to Mulla Rashid, the direct effects of signing the memorandum can be limited to “restricting the PKK and its affiliates in terms of propaganda and media and economic mobilization in Sweden and Finland. The two countries may also extradite certain persons to Turkey, especially those of Turkish nationality”.

Mulla Rashid also noted that “it is likely for AANES to lose some of the diplomatic advantages that its figures and organizations had there, especially if it does not separate its activities from those of the Workers’ Party (PKK).”

Russian response and the balanced approach

Finland and Sweden’s possible accession to NATO extends the border between the latter and Russia from 700 km to more than 1900 km, making Turkey’s approval of the two countries’ accession to the NATO alliance a “disappointing” step for Russia, which opposes the alliance’s expansion on its western border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened on 29 June that his country would respond if NATO’s military infrastructure was deployed in Finland and Sweden, according to the Russian Sputnik News Agency.

“We do not have the same problems with Sweden and Finland as we have with Ukraine,” Putin said.

Chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, warned of the consequences of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.

Regarding the signing of the tripartite memorandum, Slutsky said, “Referring to the assurances that Turkey had received in exchange for not opposing the inclusion of Sweden and Finland in the alliance, Soviet President Gorbachev received at the time assurances that the alliance would not expand, but those promises were reneged.”

On 1 July, the Turkish President reiterated his country’s desire to continue its balanced approach to its relations with Russia in response to a question as to whether viewing Russia as the “biggest direct threat” in NATO’s new strategic concept would actually damage relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Erdogan noted certain ties between Ankara and Moscow, as Turkey imports about 40 percent of its gas from Russia. He also drew attention to cooperation between the two countries in the fields of energy and defense industries.

“Turkey is trying to categorize the files of its regional and international understandings, and it cannot be expected to affect Turkey’s relations with Russia as much as it can affect certain understandings in Syria,” researcher Badr Mulla Rashid said.

Mulla Rashid noted that Russia could “close opportunities for Turkey to implement a new operation in northern Syria because Russia does not usually mind compartmentalizing certain issues with a view to reaching as many gains as possible.”

American-Turkish “rapprochement”

Signs of a “rapprochement” between NATO members, Turkey and the United States, emerged following the signing of the memorandum of understanding in Madrid, especially as the US was a prominent supporter of Sweden and Finland’s accession to the alliance.

Erdogan announced on 30 June that he would send a delegation to the United States regarding the purchase of F-16 fighter jets.

“President Biden’s sincere efforts will be greatly supported. I will send a delegation to the United States immediately”, he announced.

For his part, Biden said that his country supports the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey and that he is confident of obtaining the necessary “Congress approval” for the sale.

Biden dismissed suggestions that Washington’s support for the sale was in exchange for Turkey’s approval of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.

The change in US position comes after Congress rejected Turkish policies over the past years following Ankara’s acquisition of Russian-made defense missile systems, leading to US sanctions and Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter jet program.

Researcher Badr Mulla Rashid considered that, in most cases, Turkish-American disagreements are regarding files related to the two parties’ security concerns, noting that “although the relationship between the two parties has ebbed especially with Biden’s coming to power, the two sides maintain good relations at several levels, which is what we have witnessed in Armenia, Libya, and even in Somalia.”

Mulla Rashid told Enab Baladi that “the main cause of the dispute was the situation in northern Syria. Therefore, it is possible for the two parties to move forward with more convergent steps on certain Syrian issues, in addition to the possibility of Washington relaxing its tone toward Turkey on issues related to oil and gas in the Mediterranean”.

According to Mulla Rashid, the prospects for rapprochement or tension between Turkey and the US remain mostly vague as a result of “the multiplicity of influential parties involved in these files, such as Greece, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States. Therefore, any improvement in the relationship between the two parties will be predominantly the result of regional rapprochement between Turkey and other influential countries in the region”.

Procrastination warning

According to the Anadolu Agency, Erdogan warned Sweden and Finland on 1 July against resorting to procrastination regarding the implementation of the memorandum of understanding’s clauses.

The Turkish President threatened that his country would return to its previous position if it sensed any procrastination or hypocrisy on the part of Sweden and Finland regarding honoring their commitments under the memorandum.

He stressed that the process of the two countries’ accession to NATO is still in the invitation phase, which does not necessarily mean Ankara’s approval of their membership.

Erdogan revealed that Sweden has handed over to his country “four terrorists out of 73 wanted by the Turkish security authorities”.

On 30 June, Swedish Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson, said that decisions on the extradition of wanted persons to other countries were issued by an “independent judiciary.”

According to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report, Johansson added that “Non-Swedish people can be extradited to other countries upon request, but only when this is in conformity with Swedish law and the European Convention on Deportations,” noting that “no Swedish citizen could be extradited.”

Speaking earlier to Enab Baladi, Swedish researcher specializing in Syrian affairs, Aron Lund said that Swedish law is very strict on asylum and extradition cases, which are mainly under the courts’ jurisdiction.

Lund added that “it is almost impossible for any Swedish government to meet the extradition request, even if it wishes. It is not clear whether the Turkish government understands the complexity of the extradition issue from a Swedish legal point of view”.

 

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