23 October 2019

Turkey’s intervention in Syria: stakes and inferences

Claudiu Nebunu

After months of pressures, lobbies and troop concentrations at the border with Syria, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to get the approval of American President, Donald Trump, for a military operation in North of Syria. The “Peace Spring” operation is the third major Turkish military intervention in Syria, since 2016. Its objectives and magnitude are not that clear yet, but this initiative may dramatically change the dynamic of the Syrian conflict, both internally and regionally. Washington will lose Kurds’ trust and will draw the attention of other possible allies that they can be used. Turkey’s intervention in North of Syria has pushed the Kurds already closer to Assad’s regime. Although it is too early to speculate on what is going to happen in North of Syria, we can, however, state that the US withdrawal opens the path for some of Washington’s enemies to take advantage of the situation- Russia, Iran, the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), and the regional allies will have to rethink their stances in order to achieve their interests. But, maybe it is too early to look at these evolutions with different eyes, a multipolar model, wherein US no longer takes the “international gendarme” role.

Image source: Mediafax

What’s actually going on…

On October 9th, Turkey launched a military operation in North-East Syria to eliminate the “terrorist” elements from the border region at East of Euphrates River and to establish a “safe area” on 30 km depth inside Syria’s territory, where there were planning on re-dislocating some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees they are hosting. This operation (“Peace Spring”) is not a surprise for those who have followed this region’s evolutions in the past years, and the idea of creating a protected area to south of the Turkish border, through different mechanisms, was often speculated.

Having Russia and US’s “tacit approval”, the Turkish army crossed the border, starting violent confrontations against the Kurdish forces. Also having the support of Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the offensive started on a front placed between the Syrian cities Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn (around 100 km), and then it was conducted towards Manbij.

If in respect with the first two districts Ankara sought to exploit the advantage of a population mostly Arabic and a less inhabited land to ease its sally to the South, the last direction wants the get a strategic position, placed close to M4 highway, which connects North-Est and North-West of Syria and favors the forces and methods maneuver along the border. There were hundreds of deaths (including civilians) and more than 100.000 domestic refugees in the report of the first days of the Turkish offensive…

After some negotiations with Washington, Thursday night, October 17th, it was established an armistice to allow the withdrawal of the Kurdish fighters from Ras al-Ayn (as considered by the Kurdish forces) or the entire buffer zone considered by Ankara (according to Turkish officials’ statements).

The armistice is less likely to be extended more than agreed (five days)…

For a better insight of the situation…

Turkey justifies its military presence in Syria through the need to combat the PYD from Syria, founded on September 20th 2003, a democratic confederated group, which is ideologically associated to the Labor Party from Kurdistan (PKK), considered illegal by the Ankara authorities. Also, the elimination of the last elements of ISIL to stabilize the situation across the border and allow refugees’ return to Syria is another element claimed by the Turkish state. Ankara thinks that the protection units of the Kurdish population (YPG, Kurdish militia) , which are currently controlling the region targeted by the “Peace Spring” operation, as a military extension of PKK, a group which started a long armed campaign against the Turkish state for autonomy. The presence of a territorial entity controlled by YPG at the Southern border is an unacceptable threat against Turkey’s national security and territorial integrity.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has repeatedly reiterated in front of its Western partners that he will certainly not allow for North-East Syria to remain under YPG’s control for too long. Also, he made many efforts to convince both Washington and Brussels to not use YPG as proxy in the fight against ISIL. Turkish president’s warnings and complaints were ignored and, eventually, the only option Ankara got was a military operation against the Kurds in North Syria.

Turkey’s interventions in Syria… the recent past

Since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, when the idea of a possible independence was only expressed to the them by the imperial powers, the Kurdish nationalist groups have regularly joined alliances with strong national states and were left out in the cold when these counties’ short term interests were accomplished. The cycle of promises and concessions lasted a century and, except for the establishment of the independent Kurdish regional Government in North of Iraq, it continued to lose its national, political and cultural Kurdish ambitions.

American president’s decision, Donald Trump, to withdraw the American troops from North of Syria to ease Turkish army’s intervention is only one of the most recent disappointments.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria (2011), PYD has sought to establish an autonomous region in North of Syria.  It was a move that scared Turkey, which considers that any PYD entity can become a planning and launching platform of attacks at its borders.

Since 2015, US has supported PYD’s armed wing, YPG, in the fight against ISIL, seeing the Kurdish militia as the most effective fight force in the field. YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces, has managed to conquer most of the territory controlled by the terrorist organization in North of Syria, including the seizure of its so-called capital, Al-Raqqah.

In 2016, the Turkish army and the allied rebellious Syrian forces have launched the “Euphrates Shield” Operation, entering North of Syria to fight ISIL, whose fighters were controlling areas inside the national Syrian territory, However, PYD said it was the final target of the Turkish forces, and the hopes that Washington’s support in the fight against ISIL would also mean that US would protect them against Turkey started to get smaller and smaller. At that time, the American vice-president, Joe Biden, has warned YPG that Washington will only continue to support them if they will stop extending the actions towards West of Euphrates, which was, in fact, going to stop the creation of a Kurdish bordering region at the border with Turkey through the unification of the Kurdish “districts” from North-East and North-West of the country.

The “Olive Branch” operation, from 2018, involved the entry of the Turkish army and its allies in Afrin and the elimination of YPG, which was seen as an attempt to change the demographic structure in the area. Although US seemed to have been “extremely concerned” with operation’s effects, the American secretary of defence at that time, James Mattis, has underlined that Turkey has “legitimate security concerns”.

2016- the moment the Turkish approach changed

Before 2016, Erdogan’s plans to militarily interfere in Syria were being opposed by the Obama Administration, but also by the Turkish army, which he was not controlling yet.

Therefore, Erdogan has refused to be part of the war led by US against ISIL that Obama declared after the terrorist organization took over Mosul, in the summer of 2014. Turkey did not allow US to use the air base from Incirlik (South of Turkey) in the war against ISIL, hence, Washington had to use more distant air bases (Al-Udaid in Qatar and Riffa in Bahrain). In the meantime, US refused Turkey’s offer to arm and train the Syrian opposition group to fight ISIL, choosing instead to use YPG as local proxy against the terrorist organization.

In order to dissimulate this proxy’s Kurdish identity, in 2015, there were created the FDS, which, besides YPG- a group mostly Kurdish, it includes also Arab fighters. FDS were trained and armed by the American army.

When Turkey decided, some time ago, to change the plan and allow US to use its territory in the fight against ISIL, in the autumn of 2015, it was already too late. Russia already had offered its support to Damask’s regime, changing the dynamic of the Syrian conflict. It meant that Turkey was participating to a completely different war.

The change of the circumstances was clearly proved in November 2015, when Turkey took down a Russian war aircraft close to its border with Syria, starting a major crisis with Moscow. Without a clear support from the West in the crisis with Moscow, Turkey found itself blocked between a strong rival, Russia, in the Syrian territories at West of Euphrates, and a careless ally, US, in the Syrian territories at East of Euphrates.

Back to Russia…

The failure of the July 2016 military coup d’état from Turkey offered Erdogan the possibility to repair its relations with Russia and get out of this strategic trap. Only one month after the coup d’état attempt, when Vladimir Putin expressed his support for Erdogan, Turkey was allowed to interfere in North-West Syria and take the control of the area from ISIL and YPG.  The “Euphrates Shield” has opened the door to establishing the Astana process, wherein Russia and Turkey tried to get to a modus vivendi in Syria. Afterwards, Iran joined it too.

In February 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to launch the “Olive branch” Operation to get YPG out of Afrin. After managing to ensure the section of its border with Syria to West of Euphrates, Turkey turned to East. Once the defeat of ISIL was over in this region Turkey started to fill the gap left behind by the American troops’ withdrawal.

Focusing on Trump…

In January 2018, the State Department, led by the former secretary Rex Tillerson, has come up with a plan for a long-term US military presence in North-East Syria. They have defined four key-objectives for this presence: ensure a long-lasting defeat of ISIL, create the proper conditions for Syrian refugees’ return home, control the Iranian influence in the region and organize the elections with UN observers, for a new leadership in Damask. The reason behind this strategy, as stated by Tillerson, was that US “cannot repeat the 2011 mistake, when a premature withdrawal from Iraq allowed Al-Qaida to survive and, eventually, to become ISIL”.

But Trump has fired Tillerson, in March 2018, and, then, has promoted the idea of an American withdrawal from Syria, surprising both the members of its own administration and the regional and European allies. Turkey took advantage of this faction and talked with Trump. After repeated postponements, Sunday, October 6th, everything got changed after a Trump-Erdogan phone talk: Trump decided to allow Turkey to start the military operation and create a “safe zone”. Three days later, the Turkish army entered Syria.

The refugees’ problem- a major argument for the intervention

For Ankara, the main stakes of the military intervention in North Syria are the blocking of the establishment of a new bordering territory controlled by the Kurds at the Southern border and finding a new solution to relocate the refugees, who are pressuring the Turkish state economically, socially and politically.

The strong accent on Syrian refugees’ return to their country is a new element in Ankara’s policy and it can be observed in the intense social and political debates in Turkey. There is a strong belief among the government circles according to which the refugees are the reason why the Justice and Development Party (AKP- Erdogan’s government party) has lost the recent municipal elections. Consequently, AKP has stopped being the pro-refugees wining party and started to implement harsh measures against the Syrian citizens who were not enlisted in the Turkish cities, new rules in the refugees’ camps and to intensify the control at the border crossings. As for the public speeches, they have started to use more and more references that justify the military operation in Syria through the need to control the refugees flux to Turkey.

Ankara’s effort to create a single shelter (or a “peace corridor”) along with US is not belonging to the past, hence, a unilateral actions in North Syria became the only option of the Turkish president, both for the domestic public and the foreign one. And if (Kurdish) “terrorists” happen to be around, the better…

New regional and internal…dynamics

Even if no one knows for sure if the US will completely withdraw from Syria or it will only allow Turkey to establish a “safer zone” in South of the border, the Turkish operation has already changed the Syrian conflict’s dynamic, both internally and regionally.

The states in the Gulf- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Kuwait- as well as Egypt and Israel have already showed their opposition to Turkey’s initiative. During the emergency meeting of the Arab League (Cairo, October 12th), the Secretary General, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, has called Turkey’s military operation in North-East Syria “an invasion of the territory of an Arab state and an aggression against its sovereignty”.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, has blamed, also, the Turkish operation and asked for its immediate end. For the past year, Riyadh has made important efforts to convince Trump to keep its forces in North-East Syria to counterbalance Turkey and Iran’s influence. In November last year, the Saudis have committed $100 million to convince US to stay in Syria. At that time, Riyadh even offered to send troops to patrol the area together with US and YPG. Therefore, the “Peace Spring” can be regarded as a major blow for Saudis’ efforts to keep Ankara outside Syria.

Moreover, Israel has blamed the Turkish military operation and expressed its sympathy for YPG. Israel was always a supporter of the Kurdish separatism. The establishment of a big Kurdistan is regarded, by Israel and some circles in Saudi Arabia, as a method to weaken region’s major powers, such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Surprisingly, Turkey’s partners from the Astana group, Russia and Iran, have proved to be really flexible. Moscow has stated that it understands Turkey’s security concerns in North of Syria and has joined forces with US (?!) to block EU’s statement within the UN Security Council, which was asking Turkey to end the military operation.

Iran also expressed a similar stance. This is a major change in both countries’ policies in terms of the Turkish initiative, given that at the beginning of this year, both Moscow and Teheran have showed their opposition against Ankara’s plans to create a “safe zone” in North of Syria. However, now, Iran is not able to combat Turkey, meanwhile facing US sanctions.

Moscow relies on Turkey to end the conflict in Syria. Furthermore, Russia’s major concern now is getting US out of Syria, punish the Kurds for allying with Washington and push them back to the Syrian regime.

And this is what is happening… After being abandoned by Washington, the Kurds do not have else where to go, being forced to return to their old ally, the Assad regime. Therefore, they have signed an agreement with the Syrian regime and asked them to deploy their forces at the border with Turkey (a major change in the internal alliances which are managing the conflict in Syria). This new move will turn the Syrian regime forces against Turkey and the Syrian opposition supported by the Turkish. Will Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime in this fight as they did with Idlib?

Most likely, in this phase, Moscow will try to end an agreement between Turley and the Syrian regime, to turn the October 20th 2018 Adana Agreement back to life, which foresees border’s security between both sides and establish an unacceptable status quo for everyone. Moscow has made similar arrangements in Afrin and the area affected by the “Euphrates Shield” operation from Turkey.

Moscow wants for all foreign forces to eventually leave Syria, but they also want to make sure US leaves first. Once Washington will disengage, Moscow will decide on its own Syria’s destiny and will manage everyone’s actions, including Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Turkey and EU

When the operation started, Turkey’s European partners have acted as if the intervention would have been an impulsive aggression action against the Syrian Kurds. EU did not only blame the operation but, furthermore, its members have immediately asked for a UN Security Council reunion to issue a common statement against Turkey. Although the initiative did not succeed due to Russia and US’s opposition, the European members issued a separate statement criticizing Ankara.

The European effort to “scold” Turkey did not stop. At the beginning of the last week (Monday. October 14th), EU’s foreign ministries met, again, in Brussels, to pressure Ankara. In a joint statement, they blamed Turkey’s military operation, claiming that “it seriously undermines the stability and security of the entire region”. Although, within this reunion, the foreign ministries did not get to an agreement on imposing an embargo across the whole EU on delivering weapons to Ankara, many European countries – France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Italy- have announced that they will stop the weapons exports to Turkey.

But Ankara’s answer came immediately, accusing the EU member states for standing against Turkey, a candidate and NATO ally on an operation against an armed group, called “terrorist organization”. However, the same European countries are ok with continuing to sell weapons to a country like Saudi Arabia, which is responsible with the war in Yemen that provoked the death of tens of thousands of civilians…?! Where does this “concern” come from? Turkey has 4 million refugees between its borders. And most of them want to get to EU… which is already preoccupied with opening the borders, a threat the Turkish president uses frequently! And ISIL was not completely eliminated either…

The idea of a long-term war between the Turks and the Kurds in North-East Syria is a dream scenario for a weakened ISIL, whose remanent elements seemed to be committed in an uplifting process. More than 11.000 members of the terrorist organization are held in improvised facilities on the territory controlled by FDS, around 15% of them being in the area targeted by Ankara. And it should not be ignored also the dissimulated members among the population. An unstable security environment could lead to ISIL’s resurrection.

With the withdrawal from the border with Turkey, US is destroying the security mechanism implemented along with YPG, even if it was offering a stability opportunity in one of the most unstable regions in the world. President Trump has suggested that “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIL fighters in the area captured for the past two years”. But it is difficult to image a “light” concession of prisons’ control from the Kurdish militias to the Turkish military forces.

However, according to an ironical and pragmatic statement of president Trump, the refugees and the ISIL fighters are closer to Europe than to America!

Translated by Andreea Soare