Erdogan Faces Syria Choice as Putin Revives 21-Year-Old Treaty

(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested a long-forgotten security treaty between Turkey and Syria should be resuscitated, effectively pressing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cooperate with the regime in Damascus that he opposes.

A 1998 agreement between Turkey and Syria “that deals specifically with the fight against terrorism” remains in force, Putin told reporters in Moscow after Kremlin talks with Erdogan on Wednesday. The accord “covers many issues relating to ensuring Turkey’s security on its southern borders” that he and Erdogan discussed, Putin said.

The agreement gives Turkey’s military the right to intervene in Syria, Erdogan said Friday in the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum. Turkey expects a “safe zone” to be established in northern Syria within a few months to deter Kurdish fighters once U.S. forces complete a pullout from the area, and “we will not wait indefinitely for promises to be kept,” he said.

The Russian leader’s proposal offers an alternative to Turkish control of Syrian soil. The agreement signed in the Turkish city of Adana states that Syria won’t permit any activity on its territory that would jeopardize Turkey’s security, including “the supply of weapons, logistic material, financial support to and propaganda activities” of groups Ankara regards as an extension of the Kurdish PKK that it’s been fighting for more than three decades. The Syrian and Turkish foreign ministers signed an updated treaty in 2010.

‘Lends Legitimacy’

Turkey has build up a significant military presence on the border with Syria. Only Turkey can operate a safe zone in northern Syria and “if there’s a price to be paid for this, we’ll pay it,” Erdogan said.

By raising the 1998 accord, Putin is pushing Erdogan to restore ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. Russia wants the government in Damascus to assert control over the Kurdish-held territory once U.S. forces withdraw, and “the accord stipulates that Syria has the obligation to protect Turkey’s security. It lends legitimacy to Assad,” he said.

The Adana agreement “does include a reference to Turkish right to self defense should Damascus not meet its obligations,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the U.S-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Thursday on Twitter. “But, in the absence of Turkish recognition of Assad, is this still valid? If Putin thinks so, then it’s clear he is trying to get the Turks to recognize regime.”

While he backed the creation of a safe zone, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened in a Jan. 13 tweet to “devastate Turkey economically” if Turkish troops attacked the Kurds in Syria, who were allied with the withdrawing American forces in fighting Islamic State.

Turkey’s ‘Priority’

“We’ve told Trump that our priority in Syria is to fight” Islamic State, Erdogan told lawmakers two days later, after the two leaders spoke by phone to try to ease tensions. “Turkey has no problems with the Kurds” and its goal is to fight Kurdish militant groups “which pose a threat to Turkey’s national security,” Erdogan told Trump, according to a statement on the presidential website.

Turkey broke off ties with Damascus soon after the eight-year long Syrian war broke out, and Erdogan has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power. Putin’s reference to the treaty can be seen as encouraging Ankara to restore relations, since “both Russia and the U.S. possibly share the view that a Turkish military intervention at this time would disrupt the fragile stability attained in Syria,” said Aydin Selcen, a foreign policy analyst in Turkey.

“Turkey has to make a decision,” said Ismail Hakki Pekin, a former head of Turkish military intelligence. “Should there be a PKK-led terror statelet in Syria, or should Turkey cooperate with Assad?” Choosing the latter option would amount to “a change of strategy,” he said.

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