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A post-mortem of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring

Turkey had seven net gains and six net losses from its two-week Operation Peace Spring against the Syrian Kurdish groups.
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters drive on top of a truck to cross into Syria, near the border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC11C9239EE0

Turkey's gains from Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria are greater than its losses. 

The Turkish Defense Ministry announced after an Oct. 22 meeting between the Russian and Turkish presidents in Sochi that a new operation in northern Syria was not needed and that Turkey's two-week Operation Peace Spring had concluded. A post-mortem is now needed, as well as a discussion on what comes next militarily and diplomatically.

Was the operation's political objective achieved? According to Turkish decision-makers, the operation had two political goals. First, Turkey sought to control the terrain stretching from the northeastern Syrian town of Kobani to the Iraqi border and create a safe zone 30 kilometers (18 miles) deep. Second, Turkey aimed to eliminate the military capacity of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey and other Western powers consider a terrorist organization. Turkey currently controls the land between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain stretching to the strategic M4 highway in the south. The size of the area under Turkish control amounts to some 20% of Turkey’s goal.

According to data provided by the Turkish Defense Ministry, Turkey has neutralized some 702 militants, comprising about 1% of 70,000 YPG militants.

Some important points emerged following head-spinning diplomatic traffic in the past weeks, beginning with US Vice President Mike Pence visiting Turkey a week ago and ending with a summit between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. The important points are:

  • In the north, Turkey and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army control the Tell Abyad, Ras al-Ain and M4 pocket, that is, 20% of the border.

  • Some 80% of the border will be under the control of forces backed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

  • Assad's forces will take control of the Turkish border from the YPG for the first time in eight years. It's still a mystery how the YPG and Assad will transfer power and how Assad's forces will ensure border security after the YPG withdrawal. The US Air Force has still not withdrawn. Russia will send to the zone at least 1,000 troops for joint patrols with Turkey. This could be a risky and costly situation, as Al-Monitor’s Maxim Suchkov wrote. Russia will be responsible for maintaining peace and order in this zone, as stipulated by the Sochi deal, but this will surely be a headache for the overstretched Russian military.

What are Ankara’s net gains after the operation and the Sochi summit?

  • Disruption of YPG-US military ties on the ground after a hasty withdrawal

  • Elimination of the YPG’s territorial claim and self-governance body in northeast Syria

  • Territorial control of the Tell Abyad, Ras al-Ain and M4 pocket for an undefined period of time

  • Tension and a possible split between the PKK’s command center and the YPG is possible in the coming months

  • Russia's recognition of Ankara’s security concerns about the YPG’s military capacity for the first time

  • Drawing more attention to the refugee crisis, particularly in Europe and Russia

  • Proof that Ankara has the diplomatic capacity to persuade the Trump administration

Erdogan's political gains can be summarized as follows:

  • Overwhelming popular domestic support for his strong leadership

  • Fragmentation in the political opposition ranks, particularly between the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)

  • Consolidation of partnership with the Trump administration 

  • The negative international sentiment toward the operation was perfect for Erdogan and his anti-Western rhetoric

What about Ankara’s net losses?

  • Russia, thanks to Turkey’s operation, could finally arrange an agreement between the Assad regime and the YPG, especially in the eastern sector covering the towns of Derik, Hasakah and Qamishli.

  • Turkey’s dependence on Russia has increased both in Syria and in the defense/security fields. Russia came out as the sole winner and turned the Kurds to Damascus. It also forced Ankara to consider normalization with Damascus.

  • Ankara lost the war on the optics front. The YPG gained further global visibility, recognition and public support. While Ankara tried to minimize the YPG’s global legitimacy to the PKK’s level, instead the PKK’s legitimacy has been elevated to that of the YPG.

  • Turkey's global image was tainted by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army’s alleged atrocities and war crimes during the operation.

  • Ankara could not deliver Manbij and Kobani to Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army factions. This may lead to reactions from within the FSA ranks.

  • The Idlib issue was discussed in Sochi, but the contents of the discussion have not been made public. This means that Ankara gave some concessions on Idlib in return for Russia’s help in northeast Syria. Ankara may have given up on Idlib. One can expect fast developments in Idlib in the coming days.

Where to from here? The military situation, apart from Idlib in the north and Deir ez-Zor in the south, is static. No large scale military action is expected. 

However, there are still some unknowns, including: How will Assad’s forces take over border security from the YPG? How will Turkey-Russia joint patrols be conducted? And can Russia permanently maintain three or four battalions east of the Euphrates?

What will be the future status of the YPG’s 70,000 members? Will they be incorporated into the Syrian regime army, become an autonomous force or be demobilized? Will they be used under Russian sponsorship to fight the Islamic State? Or to restrict the pro-Iran and pan-Shiite militias that so bother Russia and Assad? The YPG could also be used to impose control over the Turkey-backed FSA factions that, to varying degrees, possess jihadi ideologies.

Will Ankara accept the Russian guarantee of preserving the YPG's military strength, or will it insist on disarmament? 

More importantly, what is Russia’s vision for the Kurds in Syria and at a regional level? Russia, unlike the United States, was careful not to establish military ties with the YPG, but will it maintain this policy?

Will the PKK’s leadership remove YPG commander Mazlum Kobane? Kobane gained enormous sway through his recent contacts with Trump and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The PKK would probably like to remind everyone who is the real boss. Will the YPG extract itself from PKK domination and become a rival group in Rojava?

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