In a further sign that Turkey, Russia and the United States are seeking common ground in Syria, Turkey's Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar met with his American and Russian counterparts in the southern Mediterranean resort of Antalya today.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim described the tripartite talks as an attempt to coordinate their moves in Syria so as to avoid accidental clashes between their respective forces as they pursue the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist outfits from the ground and the sky.
“Very sound coordination is needed to free Syria of all terrorist groups. If this coordination is not secured, the risk of conflict that is most undesirable may arise,” Yildirim warned.
Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Jordanian Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, Yildirim named al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra among the terrorist groups that needed to be pursued. This suggests that Turkey may be willing to leverage its border with Idlib province where Jabhat al-Nusra is the pre-eminent force in order to help US and Russian efforts to weaken and ultimately destroy the group. Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham — which is counted alongside Jabhat al-Nusra as the strongest mainly Sunni Arab militia in Syria, and with supply lines from Turkey — has been clashing with its al-Qaeda-linked rivals in recent weeks.
The real trouble is that the United States, Russia and Turkey have sharply differing views as to which groups are terrorists. Both Russia and the United States have deep reservations about Ahrar al-Sham, which for all its disavowals of al-Qaeda is viewed as being very radical nonetheless.
But the most glaring differences are over the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its Arab affiliates that are battling IS under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) together with the United States. Turkey labels both groups as terrorists because of the YPG’s connections to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is fighting for Kurdish autonomy inside Turkey.
Turkey’s vows to roll back the YPG’s gains at the same time that its pursuing IS has undermined the US campaign against the jihadis and complicated relations with Russia, which also supports the YPG. Such disparate agendas in an already crowded battlefield could touch off a round of fresh mini-conflicts pitting Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies, some of whom were trained and equipped by the United States, against the coalition-backed YPG and other US-trained Arab forces.
Tensions came to a head last week over Manbij, a mainly Arab town conquered by the SDF last August with the help of US air power. Turkey has long insisted that unless the Syrian Kurds pull out of the town it will take matters into its own hands. And so it did, advancing with its FSA proxies on villages to the west of Manbij last week. But last-minute maneuvering by Russia pre-empted the Turkish gambit with the SDF reportedly ceding control of the villages to Russian and Syrian regime forces. The United States also deployed additional forces to the north of Manbij to “reassure” their SDF allies, as Defense Department Navy Capt. Jeff Davis put it, and to head off further clashes.
But coalition officials speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the United States will not offer protection or intervene west of the YPG’s forward line of its own troops in Arima.
The SDF-backed Manbij Military Council today denied that the town would be ceded to regime forces, which would have been a welcome outcome for Turkey.
The council acknowledged, however, that the Syrian army would serve as a buffer to the west and southwest of the town to fend off any Turkish advances. But a YPG commander contacted by telephone in northeastern Syria told Al-Monitor that fresh clashes had erupted between the SDF and Turkish-backed rebels near the village of Olasha, which lies 7 kilometers (4 miles) west of Arima. “There are casualties on both sides,” the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “The Russians and the regime are of no use to us,” he added.
Coming just as Turkey’s top general met with his US and Russian counterparts, the attacks suggest that Turkey is determined to test the limits of US and Russian resolve as it keeps up pressure on the YPG. The YPG commander claimed Turkey’s next target would be the town of Tell Abyad on the Turkish border, which was captured by the SDF with US backing in June 2015. Tell Abyad is a strategic prize due to its proximity to the IS capital of Raqqa. Control of the town would allow Turkey and its proxies to deliver on their offers to take Raqqa, instead of the SDF. But the presence of US Special Operations Forces in the area makes it unlikely that Turkey would risk any unilateral moves that might bring it into direct conflict with its NATO ally.
And as a Turkish official admitted to Reuters, the United States is committed to conducting Raqqa with the SDF, not Turkey.