Turkey is really feeling the heat as parties involved in the Syrian war deliberate the future of key cities once the Islamic State (IS) is forced out.
For months now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been citing Raqqa and Kurdish-controlled Manbij as Turkey’s primary military and political targets in Syria. Turkey has been feverishly trying to persuade the United States to work with the Turkish army and the Free Syrian Army in the final thrust to Raqqa, instead of the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG).
But developments aren't matching Turkey’s expectations. There are strong indications that US President Donald Trump plans to work with the PYD/YPG. What then? How would Turkey perceive this and how would it be reflected in Turkish politics?
Cengiz Tomar, a professor at the Middle East Research Institute of Marmara University, doesn't expect Turkey to stand idly by.
“If the Trump administration marches on to Raqqa with the PYD/YPG, as indicated now, it will be perceived as the clearest sign of the US intention to set up a secular Kurdish state subservient to it by slicing chunks of land from Turkey and Iran," Tomar told Al-Monitor. "It is likely that while the PYD/YPG are preoccupied with Raqqa, Turkey may well turn on to Manbij or Afrin to cleanse the PYD/YPG from these critical areas.”
Raqqa is a pivotal city that affects political balances and calculations. The city and its environs, with an estimated population of 800,000, have been in IS’ hands since January 2015, serving as the group's main military base and de facto capital in Syria. It appears IS leaders and their families settled there. It is also a key hub of roads. Because of its proximity to Iraq, IS is able to move its forces to Iraq and back easily. Raqqa naturally has been a vital target in the fight against IS.
Former US President Barack Obama had made a deal with the PYD and the YPG, and despite Turkey's objections, the United States supplied the Kurds with heavy weapons. This situation has not changed under Trump. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the YPG and supported by the international coalition, is advancing toward Raqqa and about to besiege the city.
Nobody seems to know when the Syrian civil war will end or what a new Syria will look like, but there are signs of what is being discussed, or whispered. In northern Syria, Kurdish cantons are now accepted as a fact of life.
Turkey opened a corridor to al-Bab through the Kurdish cantons, preventing them from linking to each other, at least for the time being. Apart from a few exceptions, western Syria is now mostly controlled by the Syrian regime, which is supported by Russia and Iran. The likelihood of IS being ousted from Raqqa is growing, and questions are being raised about the city: Who will control it after IS is expelled and what will the city's position be in the new Syrian structure?
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the PYD have never denied that they would like Raqqa under their control. Murat Karayilan, a senior PKK leader, confirmed the Kurdish movement's aspirations in Syria in an ANF News interview back in December.
“The rise of the Kurds in the Middle East cannot be stopped. South Kurdistan [the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq] is about to declare independence. Today, Rojava [the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria] and its SDF ally control 29% of the Syrian territory. Action against Raqqa is in progress. If they also take Raqqa, that will be 40%. Nobody can deny this," Karayilan said.
A few days later, PYD co-chair Salih Muslim voiced the same goal in more diplomatic language when he said he hoped Raqqa would become part of the Kurdish systems of cantons established at Rojava. Muslim said Raqqa should be in "friendly hands" or the federal system in northern Syria, with numerous autonomous administrations, would be threatened.
Don't forget that it was the Syrian Democratic Council (SDF's political wing), spearheaded by the PYD, that declared the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria in December. Although this federation is not yet recognized by the Syrian regime, Russia or the United States, the PKK/PYD wants to secure a key role in Syria's restructuring. As to who will enter Raqqa and hold on to it, the Kurdish forces undeniably hold the upper hand.
Of course, Turkey is strongly opposed to the PYD controlling Raqqa and expanding the Kurdish political sphere and legitimacy. Given the fluidity of international power balances, it's hard to predict whether Turkey will have an opportunity to take over the Kurdish areas. But Turkey obviously has such intentions.
A Trump-PYD alliance would further complicate the sensitive policies Turkey is trying to harmonize with the United States and Russia. At the very least, US-Turkey relations would be further endangered.
Finally, such a development would heighten Turkey’s fears and concerns of being besieged and then split. Any existing contacts between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement would be slammed shut, ruling out a new peace process. In turn, this would mean constriction of an already-shaky Turkish democracy.