Highlights: The enemy of my enemy: Kurds weigh further alignment with Assad against Turkey; Israel may have had enough restraint toward Hamas; Will Ethiopia sign on the US-brokered deal on Nile dam?; and more!
A child gazes at a Turkish 155mm self-propelled artillery gun in the town of Binnish in Syrias northwestern province of Idlib, near the Syria-Turkey border on February 12, 2020. - Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images
1. Would Kurds cut another deal with Assad to pressure Turkey in Syria war?
The bloodshed between Turkish and Syrian forces in Idlib could give Syrian Kurds an opening to explore a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against their bitter rival Turkey. The risk for Turkey is an even deeper quagmire. To head that off, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may yet be willing to give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shuttle diplomacy a second chance.
Operation Peace Spring: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes key Kurdish groups, cut a deal with Damascus in October 2019 after Turkish forces invaded northeastern Syria (Operation Peace Spring) to expel Kurdish groups allied with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its gendarme, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey considers the PYD/YPG a terrorist group. The YPG is the backbone of the SDF. The United States also maintains a partnership with the SDF against the Islamic State. The Turkish operation has resulted in limited casualties in recent months, but has allowed Erdogan to claim he will resettle as many as 1 million of the 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as an additional approximately 600,000 refugees from Idlib, in this so-called safe or security zone.
Syria starts new front: But things aren’t going to plan for Erdogan. He blamed “Russian negligence” for the Syrian army’s killing of eight Turkish soldiers and civilians in Idlib province Feb. 3, which triggered a new round of direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces, with casualties on both sides. The Syrian army has continued its assault to take several key roads and highway access points — long-sought objectives in the war.
Turkey calls out Russia (again): Turkey has 12 military outposts in the region, according to a Russia-Turkish de-escalation agreement in 2018. Today, Erdogan said that Turkey will “do whatever is necessary” to push Syrian forces out of the de-escalation zone and behind the outposts by the end of February and blamed the “regime” and the Russians for targeting civilians, not terrorists, in Idlib.
A second front?: If the Turkish-Syrian conflict intensifies, the SDF, coordinating with the Syrian government, could open new fronts against the Turkish-controlled Euphrates Shield triangle, as well as towns east of the Euphrates held by Turkish forces and its proxy, the Syrian National Army (SNA). Iran favors such an alignment, according to Fehim Tastekin, and Russia could consider it a further means of pressure on Turkey. Amberin Zaman and Metin Gurcan have updates on the fighting here.
A diplomatic flurry: SDF commander Mazlum Kobane is trying to leverage any possible advantage, but his diplomatic hand is weak. “He can squeeze the most out of the Russians and Damascus while the Americans are still around,” writes Amberin Zaman, “for the same reason, neither will engage with him seriously until the Americans go.”
Our take: While the clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces signal a near term flop for Putin’s shuttle diplomacy last month, all diplomatic roads may still lead back to the Kremlin. Absent some Russian-brokered diplomacy, there is heightened risk of escalation not just between Turkey and Syria, but between Russia and Turkey, including by accident, as Kirill Semenov explains. Erdogan also sees the risk of the Kurds taking up with Damascus to challenge Turkish positions; he may want Putin to resume the Ankara-Damascus shuttle to close off that deal and cut his own instead. Or not; US Syria Envoy James Jeffreymet with Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin today; the US may be trying to capitalize on the friction between Russia and Turkey. Putin and Erdogan spoke today to try to bring the temperature down. Assad is a wild card as well; he started this fight with Turkey, which Putin clearly didn’t want, but may be willing to settle once Syrian forces seize the key highway node near Saraqib.
Read more: ICYMI, read Amberin Zaman’s interview last month with Kobane, who lays out a series of confidence-building measures to ease Turkish-Kurdish hostility in Syria.
2. Is Bennett ready for the end of restraint in Gaza?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a marker this week that the days of “restraint” in Gaza may be over.
“We are prepared to take devastating action against the terrorist organizations in Gaza,” he told his Cabinet on February 9. “Our actions are very strong and they have not yet ended, to put it mildly.”
The possible change of course, if it comes, just three weeks before the March 2 elections, could give Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, a long time Gaza hawk, his moment in the spotlight.
Restraint under strain: The conventional wisdom is Bibi wants to refrain from all-out retaliation against Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) during election season. That was his stance in the first two elections, and this third time he is following the same course, as Mazal Mualem explains. Israel has been especially on edge with demonstrations in the West Bank and violence in Jerusalem and Israel proper in response to the Trump Peace plan. The northern border has also been on watch since the United States killed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. But the increased rocket fire and frequency and impact of explosive devices attached to balloons from Gaza has pushed Bibi’s restraint to its limits.
Bennett may have his day: As a New Right Party member of the Knesset and hard-line critic of Netanyahu until his appointment as defense minister in November 2019, Bennett encouraged vigorous action against Hamas. And within the Cabinet, he may have been the one most likely to get ahead of Bibi on Hamas. Until now, however, Ben Caspit reports, Bennett’s “words are empty.”
“When one reaches the position of defense minister,” Caspit adds, “one will understand that the reality is more complicated than it seems, and that launching military attacks must be considered in view of many different elements. Thus, Bennett is giving Netanyahu space to continue the arrangement process with Hamas. He realizes that a flare-up against Hamas now may torpedo annexation work and interfere with Israel’s continued efforts against the Iranian bases in Syria. Therefore, Bennett will be forced to wait patiently with his plans to bring down Hamas, such as smashing the movement in a long-range aerial campaign while evacuating sections of the Israeli population living close to the Gaza fence.
Hamas restraint also tested: The view from Gaza, according to Entsar Abu Jahal, is that Israel may be pressing Hamas just enough to keep up Netanyahu’s earlier implicit bargain of “calm for calm.” But these things have a way of getting out of hand, especially when the people of Gaza are furious — with Israel, the Trump Plan and poor governance by Hamas — and Iran stoking the conflict, including via Islamic Jihad, which has less to lose than Hamas.
Our take: The arrival of an Egyptian delegation in Gaza this week signals that the crisis has indeed reached a point where escalation may be more probable than not. Egypt retreated from its mediating role since Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, against Cairo’s wishes, attended Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran. The Palestinian anger against the Trump plan has created a more suitable climate for escalation and rage, stoked by Iran. But Egypt, as a critical player in Gaza and the region, as well as a bellwether of what becomes of the Trump peace plan, has re-engaged, perhaps just in time.
3. Dam Deadline approaches — will Ethiopia sign on to US-brokered agreement?
Thanks to the mediation of the Trump administration and US Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are close to an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which would be a breakthrough and major achievement for all three countries as well as for US diplomacy.
Matter of Life and Death: The dam would allow Ethiopia to be the leading power generator in Africa. But in the process, it could also drain the water supply for Egypt, which has a population of 100 million and depends on the Nile for 90% of its water.
“For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukrytold Al-Monitor in September 2019, adding, “I don’t think anybody would agree that Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.”
Ethiopia holding out: Only Egypt signed the US-brokered statement hammered out in Washington January 28-31, which provides a plan and mechanism to address Egypt’s concerns on terms suitable to Ethiopia and Sudan. As Ayah Aman reports from Cairo, however, Ethiopia may be holding out: “The Egyptian statement released Jan. 31 asserted that the final agreement would include some provisions related to the security of the dam and completing the studies on the social, environmental and economic impacts of the GERD. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian statement indicated that ‘negotiations focused on issues of filling and operation of the GERD, and the government of Ethiopia is committed to maintaining the rights of the Ethiopian people to use the waters of the Nile for the benefit of current and future generations.’”
Closing the deal: Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Water Resources of the three counties are meeting in Washington, DC, this week, with US and World Bank officials, to work out the final details, while US Secretary of State Michael Pompeowill visit Ethiopia next week to tie up any loose ends with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, if necessary, to close the deal.
One other cool thing:
Istanbul Publishing House showcases forgotten Armenian writers
Aras Publishing has spent nearly three decades publishing forgotten classics by Armenian writers in both Turkish and the at-risk Western Armenian language. Read the article here.
What we're reading ... and why:
IMF report offers warning on fiscal stability in GCC states
The International Monetary Fund released a report last week which argues that as global oil demand is expected to peak in the next two decades, if the GCC countries do not reduce their dependence on oil and reform and diversify their economies, “the region’s financial wealth could be depleted by 2034.” Read it for yourself here.
In case you missed it:
The grim price of war on Syria’s children
The UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria has published a grim but necessary document on how children have suffered during the war. You can read the report here.
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