Turkey tests waters before next operation in Syria

Ankara will face numerous political and security risks if it moves too hastily in its pursuit of the YPG in Syria.

al-monitor Turkish soldiers are seen in the Manbij countryside, Syria, Dec. 28, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Dec 28, 2018

Almost everyone agrees that President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria was an unexpected but warmly welcomed New Year’s gift to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This decision effectively pulls the carpet from under the People's Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in northern Syria, depriving them of the backing of a major power.

Ankara says both groups are terrorist organizations linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and considers them to be a threat to its national security.

Turkey has been demanding that the United States severs its ties with these groups, but the expectation that this would happen was never high.

This was evident when Erdogan signaled recently that Ankara’s patience with Washington over this matter had run out. He announced that Turkey would be launching a major operation in northern Syria that would target the YPG east of the Euphrates River, where around 2,000 US forces are also deployed.

Trump’s ultimate reasons for deciding to pull out of Syria at such a time may be open to debate, but this has not stopped Turkish officials from basking in the belief that it was Erdogan’s resolute stand that forced the United States to back down.

Turkey is the most important actor that prompted the US to pull out of Syria with the decisions it took,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a group of university students earlier this week.

This may be a diplomatic victory for Erdogan, but many questions about the US pullout remain outstanding. This is why the Turkish government is approaching the matter cautiously, despite the self-congratulatory mood in Ankara.

Turkey has put its planned operation in northern Syria on hold for the time being, and is cooperating with Washington to facilitate a coordinated and orderly withdrawal of US forces from the region. A delegation led by Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton is expected in Ankara next week to work out the details.

Meanwhile, another delegation comprising Cavusoglu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan will travel to Moscow, also next week, to discuss the future of northern Syria.

Ankara clearly does not want its enthusiasm to go after the YPG to blind it to the political and military risks it may face if it were to move too hastily. It is also aware that it faces a new situation that was not in the cards previously.

Trump has effectively tasked Turkey with the responsibility of fighting what is left of the Islamic State (IS) east of the Euphrates River, as a condition for pulling US forces out of the region.

Ankara appears keen to take on the job, having called on Washington on numerous previous occasions to drop its reliance on the YPG, and cooperate instead with Turkey against IS.

Under Trump’s formulation, though, Turkey will have to do the job alone, enjoying only the support of its Free Syrian Army allies on the ground.

What support it will get from Russia, which is clearly not enamored with the idea of Turkey moving into new Syrian territory, also remains uncertain.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on Dec. 26 that the areas evacuated by the United States in northern Syria should be taken over by the Syrian regime.

This is in line with remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as far back as April, when he said lands captured by Turkey from the YPG and IS, including the city of Afrin, should be handed over to the regime.

Lavrov’s remark elicited an angry response from Erdogan, who said it was Turkey that would decide if and when to pull out of Syria, and no one else.

Eyeing its close ties with Ankara, Moscow has not pressed this point, but its position remains the same, which has left the Turkish side wary. The delegation traveling to Moscow next week will try to iron out such differences.

The question in many minds concerns the risks to Turkey that will attend Ankara’s commitment to fight IS after the United States pulls out of Syria.

Hurriyet columnist Sedat Ergin, for example, sees a potential problem in the fact that Turkish forces, to fight IS, will have to penetrate deeper into Syria than ever before.

“Operations by the Turkish army in Syria and Iraq in the past have generally been executed along the border or close to the border. This time, however, there could be a problem of ‘depth’ because Daesh at this stage is effective in the south of the Euphrates basin, in an area close to the Iraqi border,” Ergin wrote, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, an expert on the region, believes that IS, which once held territory stretching from the Tigris River in Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast “is no more and cannot be resurrected because the circumstances that led to its spectacular growth between 2013 and 2015 are no longer there.”

If this assessment is correct, Turkey’s job of fighting IS and the YPG simultaneously may prove not to be as difficult as some fear.

There are voices like professor Ilter Turan from Istanbul Bilgi University, however, who counsel caution.

According to Turan, the notion of “defeating a terrorist organization” — in the way that Trump claims IS has been defeated — is a “fuzzy” one.

“Saying that Daesh has been defeated refers to the fact that, geographically speaking, it has no land under its control any more. … Having said that, though, terrorist organizations are capable of existing for a long time by changing their appearances and strategies,” Turan told Hurriyet in an interview.

Turan pointed to urban terrorism as one of the tactics that IS may use from now on, and said the fight against this group might require means other than using the regular army.

Meanwhile, there are regional developments that are being monitored by Ankara because of the bearing these might have on its military plans for northern Syria.

Reports in the Arab media indicate that PYD representatives have been holding talks in Moscow and Damascus in an effort to work out a deal that will forestall a Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

Questioned about the possibility that the PYD may come to terms with the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria, Cavusoglu told reporters on Dec. 26 that Turkey was prepared to do whatever it took to eradicate this group, regardless of what measures were taken to protect it.

Other developments being watched carefully in Ankara include the decision by the United Arab Emirates to reopen its embassy in Damascus, which appears to be a prelude to Assad’s normalizing ties with rival Arab states. The UAE decision comes only a week after Sudan's Omar al-Bashir visited Assad in Damascus. There is even talk of Syria returning to the Arab League soon.

The Arab League had condemned Turkey’s past incursions into northern Iraq against the PKK as a violation of Arab sovereignty. A Turkish incursion into Syria could, therefore, cause an Arab backlash.

Given Turkey’s currently strained ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there is little incentive for these, and other regional countries like Egypt — which has its own ax to grind with Ankara — to support Turkey in Syria.

Most Arab powers remain wary of what they see as Turkish meddling in Arab affairs.

Judging by Erdogan and Cavusoglu’s remarks, though, none of this appears set to deter Ankara from entering northern Syria to rid it of the YPG, regardless of who may try to prevent this, whether it is France, the Syrian regime or Russia.

The risk, however, is that Ankara’s plans that look good on paper may not materialize in the real world. It has to be recalled, after all, that most of Ankara’s calculations regarding Syria since 2011 have proved to be badly off the mark.

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