When they met in Moscow on Jan. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly rejected all Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s appeals for him to allow Turkish forces to march into northern Syria in any shape or form.
Ankara has been at pains to disguise Putin’s sharp rebuff. Reporting on that meeting on Jan. 30, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed: “Russians have no opposition to a safe zone. We saw this at the meeting in Moscow.” He added that, after the US proposed a safe zone in northern Syria, “The Russians stressed that Turkey’s worries should cease. What does the US mean with a safe zone? What will Russia’s role there be? These issues are uncertain,” he said. He added that the subject would be further aired at a high-level Russian-Turkish working group meeting on Feb. 5, suggesting that Putin had not said his last word.
But, according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, Putin’s objection to any Turkish forces moving into Syria is absolute. He even warned Erdogan that the Russian air force would bomb any such crossings. He just as emphatically rejected an Erdogan plan for joint Turkish-Russian military patrols of the safe zone. “I won’t change my mind,” Putin declared. “The Turkish army must not enter northern Syria!”
Moscow, by taking this position, virtually threw out the US-Turkish plan for a 32-km deep “safe zone” and so cast the preparations for the US troop withdrawal from northern Syria into limbo. On Monday, Jan. 28, Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Council claimed that the Trump administration is trying to broker an agreement between Syrian Kurdish forces and Turkey to prevent them from going to war after the US withdrawal. Ahmed spoke from Washington, where he spent the last few days lobbying for a negotiated US withdrawal that would secure the Kurdish-led forces in the areas of northern Syria, which they liberated from the Islamic State with US military support.
The Kurdish leader was not to know that Putin had put paid to Erdogan’s plans to send his army into northern Syria. The Russian president had also sunk the deal struck between President Donald Trump and Erdogan in December for Turkey to take over the final battle against the last ISIS remnants in Syria. The Turks can’t engage the Islamists if Russia denies them access to the locations of their last outposts.
Forced to wave goodbye to his Syrian takeover plans after the Americans are gone, Erdogan has pulled out Plan B for establishing a Turkish foothold in the coveted northern Syrian region – without coming to blows with Moscow or Washington. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the project, launched by Turkey’s Immigration Bureau Directorate and its intelligence services, aims to plant in northern Syrian towns large groups of Syrian refugees who migrated to Turkey during the eight-year war. Erdogan sees their potential as a fifth column under his control. Turkish bureaucrats are secretly doctoring addresses marked on the Syrian refugees’ Temporary Protection Status ID papers, in order to locate them within the “safe zone” drawn by Ankara. This trick aims to gain international legitimacy for the buffer zone which Turkey is carving out on the map of northern Syria by the resettlement of masses of Syrian refugees under Turkish “protection.”