Plans for Syria safe zone mirror Turkey’s 1998 deal


Now that Turkey has struck major deals with Russia and the U.S. for a long-planned safe zone in Syria, a 1998 anti-terrorism agreement between Damascus and Ankara has once again made headlines.

Signed in Turkey’s southern city of Adana, the agreement was aimed at easing Ankara’s concerns over the presence of the PKK terror group in Syria. In its decades-long terror campaign, the PKK has killed 40,000 people in Turkey, including women, children and infants. It is also listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which was launched on Oct. 9 in northern Syria, resulted in two deals. One was with the U.S., which has long supported the YPG — the PKK’s offshoot in Syria. The other was with Russia. The deals ensure that YPG/PKK terrorists leave a large corridor stretching from east of the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq and 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Turkish frontier deep into Syria.

If the safe zone deals are successfully implemented, it is expected to create a safe zone in northern Syria and change the dynamics of the Syrian crisis in favor of millions of displaced Syrian refugees and meet the Turkish government’s security concerns there.

1998 deal re-visited

The 21-year-old Adana Agreement was recently brought up by Russia, nine years after it was updated in 2010.

On Oct. 21, a day before a historic meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria in the Russian coastal city of Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the dialogue between Ankara and Damascus should be based on the Adana Agreement of 1998.

Erdogan had earlier said the agreement allows Turkish forces to conduct operations inside Syria near the Turkish border.

“We do not need someone to invite us [to Syria]. We have already ensured it with the signing of the Adana Agreement in 1998. The signing paves the way for Turkey to enter [Syrian] territories in case of any adverse event and requires the members of the separatist terror group to be extradited to Turkey,” he said.

“The Adana Agreement constitutes one of the reference points for Turkey and opens the way for its cross-border operations in northern Syria to eliminate the [YPG/PKK] terror group and prevent the formation of a terrorist state next to its southeastern border,” Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, head of the Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Research think-tank, told Anadolu Agency.

Erol said there are major differences between Syria now and then and added that it has now turned into a war territory posing a source of instability and a security threat for countries in the region.

As a result, Erol said, under the current conditions, Syria has no capacity or willpower to fulfill the requirements of the 1998 Adana Agreement.

“It has failed to prevent the emergence of a terrorist threat east of the Euphrates which not only threatens Turkey but every country in the region. You cannot talk about a sovereign state in terms of the Syrian regime anymore.”

Right to self-defense

“However, the Adana Agreement does not constitute the only determinant instrument for these military operations,” Erol said, adding Turkey had to address the threat emanating from a country right next to its border.

Turkey chose to eliminate this threat through the use of the right to self-defense under international law, Erol said.

Earlier in October, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also said Operation Peace Spring was being carried out in accordance with international law, Article 51 of the UN Charter and UN Security Council Resolutions on fight against terrorism.

Cavusoglu’s remarks came just after Turkish troops and Syrian National Army (SNA) began Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists. 

“If such an agreement had not been signed, Turkey could still launch this operation within the framework of the right to self-defense,” Erol added.

He stressed that Turkey’s military operations are in line with the Astana agreement of January 2017 in which Turkey, Russia and Iran are guarantors and is also cemented with the Sochi deal between the three countries.

Oytun Orhan, a political analyst and researcher at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said Turkey’s latest anti-terror campaign in northern Syria was conducted to fight against the YPG/PKK and Daesh terror groups. Therefore, it could be regarded as being in line with the Adana Agreement.

Underscoring that Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria was the result of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s inability to cope with Daesh/ISIS and YPG/PKK terrorists, Orhan said Ankara’s presence in the region sought to eliminate terrorism and ensure regional stability until the public authority of the Syrian state is achieved.

“Therefore, by assuming the responsibility of the regime, Turkey and Russia adopted a facilitator role to implement the Adana Agreement,” he said.

Given that Russia attended the Sochi talks as the guarantor of the Assad regime and it agreed on a 30-kilometer safe zone with Turkey, according to Orhan, Turkey’s military presence and anti-terror operation is now based on a legitimate foundation.

Emre Ozan, international security consultant at Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Research think-tank said the 1998 deal was significant as the Syrian regime recognized the PKK and its affiliated terror groups, like YPG/PYD, and promised it would fight the terror presence in its territories.

He said Turkey brought the agreement back on the agenda as the Syrian regime had failed to comply with it and fight PKK offshoots in its territories and this led to the activation of UN Article 51, which gives Ankara the right of self-defense in case of armed attacks.

Stating that Russia had been the first country to speak of the Adana Agreement and sought to initiate dialogue between Ankara and Damascus, he said Turkey does not have direct contact with the Assad regime.

“However, Syria has had no control over its Turkish borders since 2011 and there is no way it will fight the YPG/PKK,” he said.

He argued that Turkey’s deal with Russia following its anti-terror campaign could now allow the regime to face the terror group in northern Syria.

“Regime forces might secure control there and the implementation of the [1998] agreement could be possible. This scenario does not mean Turkey is going to get in contact with the regime, but it will welcome the regime abiding by the agreement,” he said.

He went on to say that Turkey’s withdrawal from the conflict region depended on meeting its security needs and it would have no reason to stay in Syria should all terrorist organizations be eradicated, adding the country’s future pullout would also be in line with the political settlement in Syria.

Adana Agreement of 1998

With the terror group’s growing presence and PKK ringleader Abdullah Ocalan’s alleged presence in Syria, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) gathered on July 24, 1998, and the main item on the agenda was PKK terrorists taking shelter in Syrian territory.

Atilla Ates, then commander of Turkish land forces, announced on Sept. 16, 1998 that Turkey was “out of patience” with Syria and hinted that the regime’s protection of PKK terrorist head Abdullah Ocalan could trigger a military escalation.

The same month, the MGK stated that Turkey was determined to carry out a military operation in Syria if Ocalan was not expelled from the country.

On Oct. 20, 1998, the two sides initiated negotiations in Turkey’s Adana province under the mediation of Egypt’s then President Hosni Mubarak. The talks led to the Adana Agreement, which includes several commitments by Damascus regarding Turkey’s concerns over the PKK’s presence in Syria.

What does 1998 agreement say?

In line with the agreement, Syria recognized the PKK as a terrorist group and banned all its activities and those of its affiliated groups within the country’s territory.

The Syrian regime guaranteed that it would not permit any activity “which emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey.”

In addition, the Syrian regime agreed it would not allow the establishment of PKK camps or facilities, PKK members to use its country for transit to third countries, and Ocalan would not enter Syria.

The agreement was updated in 2010, one year before the outbreak of the Syrian war, and the Turkish parliament approved it in 2011. Turkey and Syria would now carry out a more comprehensive collaboration on counterterrorism.

The two countries would fight against terrorist organizations including the PKK/KONGRA-GEL, share intelligence and information with each other and not allow terrorist elements to use their territories against one another.

PKK ringleader Ocalan fled Syria on Oct. 9, 1998 and sought asylum from Greece, Russia and Italy. He was caught in Kenya in 1999. He was sentenced to life in prison and has remained imprisoned on Turkey’s Imrali island in the Marmara Sea since then.

Syrian civil war erupts

In March 2011, peaceful demonstrators took to the streets in Syria and started protesting against the regime. The demonstrations quickly spread across the country and the conflict between the opposition and regime intensified.

While opposition and regime forces clashed with one another, Daesh and the YPG – the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terror group — emerged on Syrian territory and Syrians’ suffering peaked, with 5,650,000 people becoming refugees according to UN data.

Supported by the U.S. with tens of thousands of trucks loaded with ammunition on the pretext of fighting Daesh, the YPG/PKK quickly grew powerful and occupied a large chunk of the war-torn country, also claiming control over its dams and oil fields.

In response to the increasing terrorist threat growing before its southern borders, the Turkish government sprang into action and the army along with Syrian opposition fighters launched several operations in northern Syria targeting YPG/PKK and Daesh terrorists — Operation Euphrates Shield (2016-17), Operation Olive Branch (2018) and Operation Peace Spring (launched on Oct. 9).

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