Turkey seeks its role in Syrian endgame
Turkish President Erdogan is caught in the middle of Russian and American interests in the ongoing civil war as the key battle for al-Raqqa looms
Turkish military intervention in Syria, which started last August under the name of Operation Euphrates Shield, came to an abrupt end on Wednesday. It was announced by Prime Minister Benali Yildirim, one day before receiving US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara.
Agreed upon at a summit in St Petersburg last summer between Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the troops were supposed to carve out a safe zone in the Syrian north. They managed to snatch 2,000 out of the 5,000 square kilometers that Erdogan originally had in mind, but were cut short by a colorful assortment of armies that included Kurdish, Syrian, Russian and American forces.
In an increasingly complex web of Syrian politics, Erdogan made two major mistakes. He tried to sidestep the Russians, and then, tried to play them against the Americans in Syria. Neither of them were happy.
The safe zone has been on Erdogan’s mind and lips for six years now, since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in early 2011. The reasons behind it varied. Early on, when still prime minister, Erdogan focused on bringing down the Damascus government; certain that he could if a no-fly zone was imposed by the international community, grounding Syrian tanks and military aircraft.
When the Russian air force entered the skies in September 2015, that original ambition became history. Quickly, Erdogan changed strategy. He met with then-president Barack Obama, arguing that a safe zone was all the more needed now, to protect Turkey from Islamic State and amputate Kurdish ambitions on his border with Syria.
It was also a necessity, he added, to house millions of Syrian refugees who had been living in Turkey since 2011 and were becoming a security threat and economic burden.
Throughout, Obama did nothing to help — nor did he do anything to stop the Turkish president. As relations soured with the US, Erdogan suddenly found a new ally in President Putin.
It seemed to be the perfect relationship. Both leaders were ultra-nationalist and obsessed with their countries’ Soviet and Ottoman pasts. Both were ambitious, sly, cunning, and backed by strong military establishments
Despite their political differences, the two leaders managed to get along well, especially after Putin refused to criticize or lecture Turkey on human rights violations after the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
In August, they met in St Petersburg and agreed to manage their spheres of influence in Syria. Erdogan would get his precious safe zone, and it would include Jarablus and Azaz, two cities along the border and one al-Bab, deeper in Syrian territory, 40km northeast of Aleppo.
Putin promised to look the other way while Operation Euphrates Shield kicked into action and Turkish tanks rumbled across the border in late August. In exchange, Erdogan pledged not object to the Russian and Syrian armies retaking the strategic city of Aleppo, which they achieved last December.
It seemed to be the perfect relationship. Both leaders were ultra-nationalist and obsessed with their countries’ Soviet and Ottoman pasts. Both were ambitious, sly, cunning, and backed by strong military establishments.
Two weeks later, Erdogan started courting Donald Trump shortly after he entered the White House. Erdogan “suggested” expanding his safe zone to include Manbij, 30km west of the Euphrates and al-Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
Trump said no, not wanting to upset his Kurdish allies in Syria, and Erdogan was fuming, believing he had been betrayed. After all, he was the one calling the shots in Syria — a country that has cost him US$3 million daily since 2015 — not Donald Trump.
The Russians snapped back in early February, striking a Turkish position in al-Bab — stopping just short of saying: “You are not supposed to be here.”
Then they hammered out an agreement with the US-backed Kurdish militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), allowing a peaceful transfer for control of Manbij from Kurdish hands to the Syrian Army. The Kurds had invaded and liberated Manbij from ISIS last August.
The SDF, which Erdogan considers a “terrorist organization” is the only militia in the Syrian battlefield still receiving funds and arms from the US. All other aid programs were recently suspended by the Trump White House, pushing most of their militiamen either to the lap of Erdogan or to that of ISIS. More recently, Trump has provided the SDF with anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, mine detectors, and sophisticated arms, preparing them for the big battle in al-Raqqa, which is expected to start on April 1.
Erdogan had tried to talk Trump out of such an idea, arguing that Operation Desert Shield could get the job done more quickly — shivering at the mere thought of giving the glory of defeating ISIS in its home base to the Kurds. Trump has ruled that out, and in mid-March, sent 600 Marines and US Army Rangers into Syria to take part in the liberation of al-Raqqa, along with Apache choppers that will be giving air cover to the Kurdish warriors who will march on it as of Monday, having it presently cornered from all sides.
Once al-Raqqa is ISIS-free, the patchwork map of Syria will be clearer for all sides. Everything east of the Euphrates will become a US zone of influence, and within this zone, autonomous Kurdish pockets will emerge, or a mini-state.
Trump has three objectives in Syria and bringing down the regime is certainly not one of them. Instead, he is more interested in empowering the Kurds, whom he sees as a vital ally in the war on terror, eradicating ISIS, and ejecting Hezbollah and Iran from Syria.
US-backed Kurdish governments will emerge in Kurdish towns on the upper right tip of Syria, while Kurdish cantons will see the light west of the Euphrates, generally considered within Russian-controlled Syria. This includes important Kurdish districts such as Afrin, where the Russians recently entered — on the border with Turkey — hoisting their tricolor flag for the Turks to see.
Other pictures also emerged, very much on purpose, showing Russian officers in Afrin wearing Kurdish insignia on their uniform while waving the flag of the YPG, another militia that is blacklisted by Ankara.
By calling off Operation Desert Shield, Erdogan has clearly put off a confrontation with the Americans, Russians and Kurds, until after the battle for al-Raqqa is over.
He will then work to settle old scores with all three. Last month, he nudged Turkish-backed militias to strike in metropolitan Damascus, sending a strong message to the Russians, who claim protection and security of the Syrian capital. He has repeatedly been shelling Kurdish positions in Manbij and will likely make life difficult for whoever tries to run post-ISIS al-Raqqa, if the Kurds are part of it.