Turkey’s suspicions over purported Western plans in Syria have shown no signs of abating even after President Donald Trump announced he had ordered US troops to withdraw and pledged “a slow and highly coordinated” pullout in keeping with Ankara’s demands.
The new focus of Turkish ire is France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, has lashed out at Trump’s decision, saying “an ally should be dependable.” The country could play a bridging role between the Kurds, Moscow and Washington that could upset Turkish plans or so many Kurds hope.
Macron was referring to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), America’s top ally in the fight against the Islamic State and the target of Turkey’s military threats. France has said it will keep an unspecified number of its special operation forces in the Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Syria because, contrary to Trump’s claims, IS has not been defeated. France has been repeatedly targeted by IS and is especially worried about the continued presence of French and other European jihadists in Syria. The militants claimed responsibility for the Dec. 11 shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg in which three people were killed and 11 others wounded.
Turkey has long insisted that the jihadis have been vanquished and that they are being used as a pretext for the US-led coalition to protect the Syrian Kurds as they set up their “terror statelet.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu grumbled that France’s stance would “help neither France nor the terrorists” and that Turkey remained determined to intervene east of the Euphrates River in pursuit of the YPG, which Ankara contends is a terror outfit on par with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In a further sign of Ankara’s displeasure, the state-run Anadolu news agency commented on France’s “intentions to continue supporting the YPG/PKK terrorist group” today, asserting that it had “nine military sites in Syria” but that with “only 200 troops” on the ground, “France lacks the capacity to provide the terrorist group with the promised support.”
It was something of a replay of its controversial outing of the location of US and French bases in northern Syria in July, together with maps and troop counts. The report triggered a furor, with Pentagon officials rebuking Turkey for putting its troops at risk.
An apparently unchastened Anadolu maintained that French forces are currently deployed in Kobani, Ain Issa, Raqqa and Tabqa, among other places. But with US forces gone, it would be “unrealistic” for the Kurds to rely on France for their security.
The Syrian Kurds disagree. In a Dec. 21 meeting in Paris with Macron’s Syria envoy, Francois Senemand, the co-chair of the YPG-friendly Syrian Democratic Council insisted that France has a role to play. Ilham Ahmed warned that Turkish intervention could bring the ongoing campaign against IS’ remaining stronghold in the middle Euphrates River Valley to a halt and France must retain its military presence until “a political settlement” to the Syrian conflict is reached. “We’re asking the French for diplomatic support to develop dialogue and assure peace and stability in the region,” Ahmed said, but offered no further details.
In earlier comments to Al-Monitor, Ahmed said “arrows point to Moscow” to illustrate the hard truth that with the departure of US troops, the Kurds will need to rely on Russian backing in future arrangements with the regime. YPG officials are reportedly in Moscow and Damascus to discuss the outlines of a possible deal, but there has been no formal confirmation from either side.
An official from the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces familiar with the militants’ planning acknowledged that Trump’s “betrayal” had weakened the Kurds’ hand. However, one confidence-building measure under review was the insertion of regime forces north of Manbij, where US forces carry out their patrols. The move would forestall any Turkish attempts to take over the town. If it “worked smoothly” and the YPG were given “proper guarantees,” regime forces could then take up positions east of the Euphrates River all the way to the Iraqi frontier, the official said. It would need to happen while US forces were still on the ground and Damascus unable to fully dictate the terms of its return.
When queried about the United States’ potential reaction to this scheme, the official said, “This is where the French come into play.” They can coordinate with the Russians and the regime “on the Americans’ behalf” while maintaining a military presence to deter potential aggression from Turkey and the regime.
Some analysts agree that France and the EU could pressure Damascus on behalf of the Kurds. Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, told Al-Monitor, "France and the EU might intervene diplomatically to obtain guarantees for the security of Syrian Kurds.”
Pierini went on, “If France has any operational role, it could be in the Deir ez-Zor region, where IS is still present and active. This will very much depend on the timeline and modalities of the withdrawal of US forces from that region and their residual configuration in Iraq.”
Others maintain, however, that France is unlikely to hang around for too long.
Fabrice Balanche, a French academic who has studied Syria for several decades, told Al-Monitor, “Do not forget there is no UN legitimacy for the US-led coalition. France with Europe could try on the diplomatic front to limit a Turkish intervention but with no illusions. We have seen the results for Afrin.”
Moreover, US officials lobbying for a more active Turkish role in Syria are averse to dealing with Russia, let alone the Syrian regime.
Rewarding Turkey with a slow and coordinated withdrawal is calculated to rupture Ankara’s cooperation with Russia and Iran within the Astana framework and to ease Turkish entry east of the Euphrates, all under the pretext, as Turkey might well have said, of dealing a final blow to IS.
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