In November 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was planning for a new military operation in Syria, aimed at taking the town of Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo. This, he claimed, is where Kurdish separatists had fled back in 2018, after Turkish proxies overran and occupied the city of Afrin. Given its proximity to the Turkish border, Erdogan wanted it free from any Kurdish military influence.
That operation never materialised, however, because neither the Americans approved it, and nor did the Russians. He has now announced that he will be reviving the project, feeling that due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, both countries would be more willing to accommodate him, although for very different reasons.
When raising the idea seven months ago, Erdogan suggested a territorial swap with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. In exchange for a green light to march on Tel Rifaat, he would relinquish claims to approximately 40 villages south of the M4 Highway, south of the city of Idlib. Territorial swaps were common between Erdogan and Putin, ever since the Russian army entered the Syrian battlefield in September 2015.
In mid-2016, he looked away from East Aleppo in exchange for sending his troops to capture the border towns of Jarablus, Azaz, and al-Bab. Two years later, he did it again in East Ghouta, in exchange for getting the city of Afrin, lying within Russia’s sphere of influence. The two leaders had gotten along well in Syria, despite brief tension in January-February 2020, which led to the Russians unilaterally snatching territory from Turkey, like Khan Sheikhoun.
The 1998 Adana Agreement
This time, however, Putin was not interested in any new territorial swap, arguing that Erdogan needed to first fulfil his part of a 2018 pledge, made at the Sochi resort, to cleans Idlib from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Additionally, Putin wanted him to revive the Adana Agreement with Syria, signed back in 1998. That would restore diplomatic ties between Damascus and Ankara and create joint security committees. It would have given the Syrians full control over their side of the borders, recognising Syrian sovereignty over all towns and villages presently under Turkish control.
In return, the Syrians would pledge to keep Kurdish separatists away from the border area, and allow the Turks to enter up to 5-km in pursuit of the Kurdish militants, but only after informing Syrian authorities and receiving their approval. Adana gave the Turks the right to temporary enter Syrian territory, not set up permanent base.
Putin had suggested amendments to the original text, calling for the deployment of Russian soldiers along the Syrian-Turkish border, to give Erdogan an additional layer of security, while expanding the territory into which the Turks could venture. Although Erdogan expressed support for Putin’s initiative, no serious efforts were made at reviving the Adana Agreement.
The 2022 Swap Deal
Along came the Ukraine crisis in February. Despite having originally taken somewhat of a neutral stance on the conflict, Erdogan has started to shift into the American orbit, providing Ukraine with drones and welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
That changed when Sweden and Finland applied to joint Nato President Joe Biden seconded, promising them a speedy membership, putting both Putin and Erdogan on the offensive, and back in the same boat. The Russian president would move heaven and earth to obstruct an enhanced Nato, while Erdogan would never allow it because the two Nordic states were traditional supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he considered “terrorist organisations.” The president also has an eye on Turkey’s upcoming presidential elections next June.
What Erdogan is now trying to do is pull of a swap deal, very different from before. If Putin signs off the Syria operation in Tel Rifaat, Turkey will continue to veto Nato’s expansion. If the US approves his Tel Rifaat adventure, then he could drop objection to Sweden and Finland’s membership applications. If Putin strikes a deal with Erdogan, he would expect the Turks to pay him back, not in Syria this time, but in Ukraine.
Unlike previous deals in 2016-2018, Erdogan won’t be asked to relinquish Syrian territory in exchange for Tel Rifaat, given that in today’s world, that’s the last of Putin’s worries. The Russian President would require a strategic shift on Turkey’s attitude towards the Ukraine War, a shift felt through Turkey’s through territorial waters, airspace, and solidarity with Russia at the United Nations.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.