Security guarantees rule economic initiative between Turkey, Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration

Raqqa City Square (Flickr)

Raqqa City Square (Flickr)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

Behind the escalation on contact lines between Turkish-backed forces and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an economic initiative emerges that could play a role in finding cross-points between the two sides. But first, it needs security guarantees.

A win-win plan?

On 6 July, US Senator Lindsey Graham visited the region, including Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)’s areas.

In Syria, Graham, together with the commander of the International Coalition Forces (ICF), US General John Brennan, and the commanders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), and AANES, discussed security and military files in the city of al-Hasakah, including the escalation of Turkish threats to launch a new military operation in SDF-controlled areas.

According to a prominent Kurdish source quoted by Asharq al-Awsat, SDF, SDC, and AANES leaders discussed the security challenges facing the region. The same source revealed that Senator Graham had conveyed to Syrian leaders “the need for a balanced formula that would preserve the US-Turkish relationship on the one hand, and ensure the stability of northeastern Syria and the continuation of the mission to fight the Islamic State (IS) in cooperation with SDF forces, on the other.”

He also spoke of “buffer zones between SDF and Turkey,” as well as the development of trade relations between the two sides.

On said trade relations, and according to an op-ed published by Graham on Fox News on 30 June, he suggested that “the most viable solution is to address Turkey’s national security concerns while developing a trade relationship between the Turkish government and the people of northeastern Syria. There are oil fields in the region that, with greater investment, can produce larger quantities of oil, benefiting both the global oil market and the economies of northeastern Syria and Turkey”.

“The best way to solve this problem over time is to make it a win-win situation for the residents of northeastern Syria and for our Turkish allies as well, both on security and economic levels,” he reckoned.

Turkish operation ‘on hold’

The tripartite Tehran summit between Turkey, Russia, and Iran within the framework of the Astana Process, held on 19 July, formed a clearer picture of the Turkish operation in northern Syria, from which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan desires a 30-kilometer-deep safe area.

The Russians and the Iranians have expressed their rejection of any Turkish military action in northern Syria amid a warning of its impact on the stability of the region and Syria’s territorial integrity.

The political meetings were met with a field escalation on the fronts in Syria, including clashes between Turks and SDF forces along contact lines in northeastern Syria, both with heavy artillery and drone targeting. Moreover, Russian warplanes carried out raids on northwestern Syria during the last week after a relative calm, which was interpreted as part of the strategy of the regime and its allies to pressure Turkey against a new offensive in the US-backed Kurdish region.

The question remains as to which files the Turkish side could negotiate with the threats posed by SDF, which Ankara considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) classified on terrorist lists. This comes in the face of Russia and Iran’s rejection of the military operation on the one hand and US pressure on Turkey not to launch an offensive on the other, following the assertion by the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Michael Corella, that the US military and government institutions oppose any potential Turkish attack against areas in northern and eastern Syria.

How realistic is Graham’s initiative?

In the absence of a clear international consensus on Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, the US administration tried to come up with non-military solutions with safeguards on Turkish national security threats and counter-terrorism, according to what was reported by the Turkish Anadolu Agency on 2 July about the meeting of the Turkish presidential spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, and the US Senator, Lindsey Graham, in Istanbul.

On Graham’s economic initiative between Turkey and the northeastern regions of Syria, Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor for Studies Center, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the initiative in its current form is unrealistic but is one that can be further built upon. Under current circumstances, Turkey will not concede the issue of the threat to its national security by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s backbone, and Ankara considers this issue a red line. The researcher explained that the initiative needed a second part; actions on the ground that would guarantee Turkey’s national security.

Shawakh identified these actions that could ensure Turkey’s building on the economic initiative, such as a US commitment to withdraw SDF, which Ankara considers to be an extension of the PKK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), 30 kilometers to the back.

He pointed out that Turkey wants to abide by the Sochi agreement between the two parties on the withdrawal of the YPG from the border areas with Turkey in 2019; the agreement provided for the complete withdrawal of all Kurdish forces from the border strip of Syria at a depth of 30 kilometers, as well as the withdrawal of weapons from Manbij and Tal Rifaat.

The Syrian Peshmerga (the Roj Peshmerga) forces in Erbil, accepted by Turkey and the US, can also be used, unlike the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which could face US rejection for reasons such as the sensitive demographics of these areas containing Kurdish, Syriac, and Arab components.

According to Shawakh, the US initiative may be a reason for Turkey’s postponement or reluctance regarding the current process, or even the creation of a potentially new way to solve its problems with SDF, to which the US has tried to find solutions through the Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PYD. However, this dialogue was also disrupted and terminated, according to a statement by a member of the Joint Presidency of PYD, Aldar Khalil, to Bas News on 3 July.

Economic gains subject to stability

Researcher Anas Shawakh pointed out that if the agreement was reached and Turkey solved the national security problems, oil pipelines crossing SDF-held areas to carry oil exports to Turkish territory would most likely be part of the agreement. Turkey will therefore draw great benefits from it.

Once the initiative had been carried out in accordance with Turkey’s wishes and its security problems had been resolved, there would be both economic and security gains, especially in light of the recent Turkish plan to establish a “safe zone” and the “voluntary return” of Syrians in Turkey.

SDF controls oil sources in northeastern Syria and sells them to three main parties, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, regime-held areas, and areas where opposition factions are dominant.

In a report issued in September 2019, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated that SDF-held oil fields produce approximately 14,000 barrels per day.

A study published on 21 January 2020 by researcher Sinan Hatahet suggested that oil production figures from the fields in northeastern Syria were uncertain due to a deliberate lack of transparency and the high level of secrecy imposed by AANES.

Although oil and oil derivatives are being smuggled from SDF-controlled areas to Turkey, it does not compare to establishing a fixed land pipeline, Shawakh says.

The initiative, if implemented, guarantees the restoration of the oil fields since oil wells are in need of being refurbished and maintained.

Four obstacles

In turn, economic researcher Zaki Mahshi replied to Enab Baladi’s question about the economic success of Graham’s initiative by pointing out that it faced four obstacles.

The first is the definitive lack of confidence between AANES and Turkey and the existence of a fundamental ideological dispute between the two parties, which creates a significant impediment.

The second obstacle is that economic investments will not generate a large return for the Turks as the region’s oil fields need foreign investment and hundreds of millions of dollars to restore production or return to pre-war production levels. The researcher considered that no foreign entity would risk introducing funds into Syria because there was no stability to encourage investment.

As stated by the researcher, the third obstacle is the strong and significant presence of the regime and Iran in this region, as it is unlikely that they would allow such cooperation because it is not in the interest of the regime and its allies, such as Iran or Russia that this type of agreement occurs between Turkey and AANES, nor is it in their best interest that the latter would achieve substantial economic independence from the Damascus government.

The last obstacle is the US attempting to create an economic integration initiative in areas beyond the regime’s control between the northwest and the east, which is difficult to achieve due to ideological differences and conflicting views on the issues of governance, power, and actors on the ground, according to Mahshi.

On 12 May, the US Treasury issued a statement saying that it had allowed some foreign investments located in northern Syria that are outside the control of the regime’s government, which it considered a strategy to defeat IS by achieving economic stability.

The areas covered in the exemption include governorates held by the US-backed SDF, along with areas controlled by the Turkish-backed SNA, with the exception of Afrin and Idlib.

 

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