President Donald Trump’s Dec. 19 tweet announcing an immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Syria has rendered the United States a lame duck in the war-torn country. Although Trump and his aides clarified later the withdrawal would not happen “that quickly,” the fact remains that American troops will be leaving Syria in a foreseeable future, raising the question of who will fill the vacuum after US forces depart from Manbij and the area east to the Euphrates River, where they are currently deployed.
First, of course, one needs to be mindful that a real vacuum could emerge if beyond withdrawing its troops, Washington retracts its military commitments to its ally in the region, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). What is referred to as “east of the Euphrates” is a vast area where the United States has imposed deterrence through air power and 2,000 special forces troops. The essence of this deterrence, however, is not in the number of troops but the commitment of the United States as a superpower.
Should American deterrence end, the SDF — whose backbone is made of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — will obviously lack deterrence on its own against the forces in line to fill the vacuum. The first such force that comes to mind is naturally Russia and then, to some extent, the Iranian-sponsored Syrian regime, for “east of the Euphrates” is Syrian territory after all and the regime has clearly prevailed in the eight-year war thanks to its allies.
That Turkey is also tossing its hat in the ring became evident in a Jan. 7 opinion piece in the New York Times signed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and headlined “Erdogan: Trump is right on Syria. Turkey can get the job done.”
The article emphasized the United States should cooperate with the right partners while withdrawing and claimed Turkey was the only country with the power and determination to complete the task. Ankara’s “business offer” to Trump, undersigned by Erdogan, included the following main points:
First, it called for the creation of a “stabilization force” that would include fighters “from all parts of Syrian society” and keep out elements with “links to terrorist organizations.” Following the US withdrawal, regions controlled by the YPG and the Islamic State would be governed by local councils, to be elected in a way that ensures the representation of all communities, under Turkey’s watch. Turkish officials would advise the local councils on municipal, educational and health services.
Almost half of the article was dedicated to emphasizing how strong Turkey’s commitment is in the fight against IS. In a bid to boost US confidence in Turkey, the article also underlined that Turkey has “no argument with the Syrian Kurds.” Furthermore, in a declaration of willingness to avoid unilateral stances, it noted Turkey’s intention to cooperate and coordinate its actions with friends and allies.
Two main objectives defined the essence of Ankara’s offer. The first is the liquidation of the YPG, which has been the chief US ally in Syria but which Ankara sees as a terrorist group for its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the armed group in Turkey that Ankara considers a terrorist organization. The second objective is to place the entire region referred to as “east of the Euphrates” under Turkish influence. Covering 51,000 square kilometers (some 19,700 square miles), the region makes up 27.3% of Syria’s territory. With the addition of the Afrin and al-Bab regions, which Turkey controls via proxies from the Free Syrian Army, the planned zone of influence reaches a third of Syria’s territory.
Following the breakout of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Ankara pursued an active policy aimed at toppling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that fell flat when Russia intervened in 2015. Without openly saying it, Ankara now wants to keep Assad’s forces away from its borders. Yet the NYT article outlines a rather ambitious “zone of influence” that goes well beyond the pursued “buffer zone."
On Jan. 14, Trump caused a stir by tweeting a threat to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds” in Syria. However, in the same two tweets, he gave Ankara the green light to set up a 20-mile-wide buffer zone inside Syria along its borders. It should be also noted that Trump did not threaten military action against Turkey to protect the YPG-PKK, to which he referred as “the Kurds.”
On Jan. 8, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton had met with Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara. The fact that no joint press conference was held after the meeting and Bolton could not meet with Erdogan suggests that no tangible progress was achieved on the wider Turkish plan that goes beyond the creation of a buffer zone along the border.
No doubt the chilly reception Bolton received in Ankara had to do with his Jan. 6 remarks in Tel Aviv. While outlining conditions for the US troops’ departure from Syria, Bolton said, “Those who have fought with us in Syria … particularly the Kurds” should not be put in “jeopardy” by the withdrawal. Bolton, like Trump, meant the YPG.
In a public rebuke, Erdogan said, “Bolton has made a mistake. … Those involved in the terror corridor in Syria will be taught the necessary lesson. For us, there is no difference at all between the YPG, the PKK and [IS]. The United States has long stalled us in Manbij and continues to do so.” He went on to declare that Turkey had finished its preparations for a military operation, adding, “We are determined to take steps against the YPG as well. We will go into action very soon to neutralize terrorist groups in Syrian territory.”
Should Erdogan put his words into action soon, as he says, it would mean a fresh crisis in Turkey-US ties, for Bolton’s remarks are not simply his personal opinion. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke in a similar vein Jan. 9 during a visit to Baghdad. Asked whether Erdogan’s threat of an operation against the YPG would affect the pullout of US troops, Pompeo answered negatively and added, “It’s important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that.”
In other words, a day after Erdogan slammed Bolton and raised the specter of a military operation, Pompeo revealed that the Turkish president had given them assurances to the contrary.
This squabble alone shows how unrealistic it is to expect a deal between the two sides anytime soon that would give Ankara an extensive role to the east of the Euphrates.
The first stumbling block is the confidence crisis between the two countries that has deepened and ramified in recent years. In Syria, the mistrust is manifested in the US support for the YPG and Ankara being rather late in confronting IS, compared to the United States. Unless the two sides take mutual confidence-building steps to convince each other that any pledges regarding the area east of the Euphrates are sincere and genuine, Turkey could hardly enact any comprehensive plan in agreement with the United States.
It would be similarly difficult for Turkey to make a move, regardless of Russia, to fill the vacuum to the east of the Euphrates without US military commitments, especially air support. The plan outlined in the NYT article is at a scale that would challenge Turkey’s military, administrative and financial capacities.
Meanwhile, domestically, Turkey is headed for local elections on March 31 and some voters appear inclined to desert the ruling party under the impact of the economic woes gripping the country. Should Ankara launch an extensive operation to the east of the Euphrates unilaterally in a bid to stir nationalist passions and win back those voters, it would have to risk confrontation with almost any actor on the ground. And if Ankara plans to go to the International Monetary Fund after the polls for support to salvage the economy, as some suggest, a further deterioration in with Washington over Syria would clearly not help that purpose.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that bilateral problems are resolved and the United States hands over the area to the east of the Euphrates to Turkey. What will happen then to Turkey’s relations with Russia, the pillar of the Astana process? For Russia, the Astana process has been a means to engage Turkey and keep it away from the United States in Syria. In a scenario where Turkey lays claim to the east of the Euphrates in agreement with the United States and flouts the regime’s sovereignty rights there, will it not risk losing its gains in western Syria, including Idlib, acquired in collaboration with Russia? Moreover, given the priority that Russia gives to the survival of the Damascus regime, will it acquiesce to leaving the oil fields to the south of the region to Turkish influence?
Ankara’s proposed plan is detached from reality.
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