RD Interview: Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis discusses the recent U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement on Syria and shares Turkish views on the Syrian conflict.

A Syrian pilot in a car at the Syrian Air Force base in the Homs province. Photo: AP

This week Russia and the U.S. agreed to a new Syrian ceasefire that potentially could open a new stage in the Syrian conflict and ultimately lead to its settlement.

However, current relations between the actors involved in the conflict are not very good, which puts any agreement at risk. Recent tensions between Russia and Turkey, combined with the overall Turkish and Russian stances on some key aspects of the Syrian conflict, does not contribute to the faster solution of the problem, thus casting a shadow over any agreement.

Yasar Yakis, ex-foreign minister of TurkeyOn the sidelines of the Valdai Club's conference, “The Middle East: From Violence to Security,” Russia Direct talked to former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis about the recent U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement on Syria and the Turkish role in the conflict.

Russia Direct: Do you think it possible that all stakeholders involved in the conflict in Syria will be able to find a common ground and cooperate in settling the conflict regardless of their mistrust to each other and numerous differences?

Yasar Yakis: Common ground may not be found but overlapping grounds obviously can, and this perhaps can lead to something sustainable. But, of course, the Syrian crisis as a whole is very fragile. The size of the Salafi opposition and the lack of clarity on which factions are covered by the ceasefire and which are left out leaves a lot of gray areas.

The UN Security Council Resolution says that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusa and other affiliated organizations are considered to be terrorists. There are more than a thousand other groups and some of them might not listen to their bosses and commanders and they can breach the ceasefire.

The question is whether we are going to consider it as a total failure of the ceasefire or it will be regarded as an exception. This is how we have to look at it: If a small negligible group breaches the ceasefire, should we regard the entire exercise as a failure? I think it should not be considered a failure.

This decision between Russia and the U.S. is the best that could be done under current circumstances. Actually, this is the only example in recent years and a unique example for decades to come that two major countries were able to come to an agreement on something very crucial. Whether it will work or not is a different question because it is a very fragile situation.

So, the fragility means that with a small mistake new mistakes can happen but the agreement on a Syrian ceasefire reached between Russia and the United States is the best effort so far. It should be praised and supported by other countries. Even if it fails, it opens up a new path and new efforts should be undertaken to revive it.

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RD: What do you see as the main obstacle for the implementation of the Syrian ceasefire agreement between the U.S. and Russia?

Y.Y.: I think it is the fragility of the Syrian crisis itself that is the main obstacle for the ceasefire. Also there is another subjective one: the parties should not grab an opportunity for the breach of the entire ceasefire if a negligible small group up in the mountains violates it.

RD: What do you think about the current tension between Turkey and the U.S.?

Y.Y.: I think it is temporary because in the medium term, Turkey will understand that the position it was trying to explain to the U.S. (and Washington did not accept) is not viable for the long term. The U.S. has vested interests as well as Russia to cooperate with Syrian Kurds because there is no substitute for the Kurds on the ground to take control of areas liberated from ISIS. If, for example, you put Guatemalan soldiers down there, they will not know what they are fighting for, while Kurds are fighting for their own territory.

Of course, there are also non-Kurds in the areas that will be liberated from ISIS, so Russia together with the U.S. can push the Kurds not to repeat mistakes they made after the liberation of Kobane from ISIS, when the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main armed service of Syrian Kurdistan, kicked out any remaining Turkoman and Arab residents from the villages and replaced them with Kurds. This was proved by the report of Amnesty International. Especially, Kurds must not repeat the same in the areas where the majority is not Kurdish.

RD: Do you think that the U.S. currently has enough influence on Turkey to make it stop the cross-border shelling of Syrian territory and the position of the Kurds? 

Y.Y.: Actually in my opinion, even if the U.S. did not have leverage on Turkey, Ankara should have ceased the shelling by itself. After all, it is bombing the territory of a sovereign country. As there is no case to show that the Turkish bombing is a self-defense measure, Turkey would not normally need advice from any other country to stop it.

RD: When Turkey made a decision to shoot down the Russian Su-24 bomber it was not welcomed by either the U.S. or the NATO alliance. And the same is happening now over the Turkish approach to the Syrian Kurds. Do you think that NATO is reluctant to back Turkey in case of a major escalation?

Y.Y.: In order to preserve its unity and solidarity, NATO as an alliance cannot say they are not going to support Turkey, even at the NATO meeting, which was held immediately after the shoot down of the Russian plane. Many countries objected to the Turkish decision to shoot down the jet. But as an alliance they support Turkey. If Turkey continues with the same attitude, NATO will have less support for its actions. Moreover, Turkey knows NATO enough to understand it cannot count on it in case of a major escalation.

In 1964 there was a Cyprus crisis and Turkey sent an aircraft to demonstrate its solidarity to the Turkish Cypriots. Then U.S. president Lyndon Johnson wrote a letter to the Turkish prime minister saying that if your decision to send troops to Cyprus causes Russia’s invasion of Turkey, do not count on NATO coming to help. This is called Johnson’s letter. So here we are talking about something that Turkey caused, therefore Article 5 of the NATO charter does not cover a situation when Turkey is bombing Syrian territory.

RD: Allegedly, Americans are working on a Plan B, which will come into force once the ceasefire collapses, meaning Syria might never be put back together again.

Y.Y.: I happened to be the longest serving Turkish diplomat in Middle Eastern countries, including four years in Syria. I know well what a country it used to be: multiethnic, multicultural, multiconfessional. I do not want that to be lost. So, rather than thinking on a plan B, we should all insist on a plan A.

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If we keep the territorial integrity of Syria and its government could find some way to devolve more power to the regional and local authorities, the issue could be solved and we could avoid disintegration of the country.

RD: How do you see Turkish influence on Syria in terms of growing involvement due to the Kurdish factor? Does modern Turkey have the same imperialistic ambitions as the Ottoman Empire?

Y.Y.: Of course, Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire but its imperial ambitions are gone. We accepted Syrian borders in 1922 with the Lausanne Treaty. There may be dreamers who think of returning to Ottoman days, but it is not realistic.

RD: How does Turkey view the issue of sealing the border with Syria as there is a lot of movement of militants in and out, which contributes to the instability.

Y.Y.: Turkey is growing more cautious of the risks of letting people come and go. Now stiffer measures are taken by the government and they are paying more attention to what previously was ignored. So, in general, more measures are taken on the border to diminish the transit of the people.

This issue is not only about militants who come and go but also about smugglers of humans who brought it to an industrial scale. In the last two years the number of smugglers consists of 9,000-10,000 people who are involved in the smuggling of people. If every smuggler smuggles 1,000 people can you imagine how may people went through them?

RD: What about the illegal oil trade with ISIS?

Y.Y.: Of course, there is an illegal oil trade there. Oil that is sold at half-price is coming from the ISIS-controlled area. And if the oil is half-price, you will always find a customer to buy it. When the smuggled oil comes from the area controlled by ISIS, it goes to Northern Iraq where it is refined in Kurdish refineries. After the refinery, you do not know any more whether it is ISIS oil or if it is legitimate.

After that, it goes to the market where tankers are waiting, people are bargaining and then it goes through Turkey to Iskanderun [a city and the largest district in the province of Hatay on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey — Editor's note] and from there it goes to Israel for the final refinery. So, this trade is going on. Perhaps we have to stop the supply of oil at the origin in the areas controlled by ISIS. If it is done, then the other issues could be solved.

RD: How would you characterize the Russian role in Syria over the years?

Y.Y.: Russia’s role in Syria is very positive and it has to be continued. As Russia and Syria have very close ties, this has to be used by Moscow to contribute to the peace in Syria. Actually a country like Russia wherever it is it will balance the U.S. It is positive for this reason. And if they can agree on other issues like they did with this ceasefire agreement on Syria, it will become a contribution to regional and world peace.