Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s Syria plans unravel

With Washington expressing support for Kurdish militias in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, a central plank of Erdogan’s Syria strategy has been blown apart

Erdogan’s Syria plans unravel
Erdogan’s Syria plans unravel

Perhaps the rush of events in the area stretching beneath the Anatolian underbelly in northern Syria and Iraq can best be summed up in the words: “All of Turkey’s allies in Syria have turned their backs on Ankara or are about to.” Clearly, developments there— the product of the many conflicting designs and the rivalries of international and regional powers over the spoils of the Syrian civil war — are working against the carefully worked out calculations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For fear that it will have no place whatsoever in the region beyond the Taurus Mountains and in Syria, specifically, where Turkish forces have been fighting so that their leader can pray in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Ankara has been scrambling desperately to win some influence over how the pie is divided in the post-IS period, which appears to be rapidly approaching in Mosul and in Syria. The latter is particularly problematic because that is where it launched Operation Euphrates Shield seven months ago with the stated purpose of fighting the takfiri terrorist organisation while its main purpose was preventing the extension of the Syrian Kurdish controlled regions in northern Syria across the border to the predominantly Kurdish-populated regions in southern Anatolia. As the situation stands at present, it looks like this second objective is out of reach.

According to observers and experts, including some close to decision-making circles in Ankara, the losses from Operation Euphrates Shield, in human and material terms, far exceed the gains. Moreover, large segments of public opinion, ignored by the government controlled media, are growing increasingly discontent as they watch the attrition on their country’s human and material resources as the result of what they are convinced is a futile military adventure.

Such sentiments, regardless of the pains that the government has taken to “contain” them, worry the ruling circles in Ankara. More deaths among Turkish officers and troops deployed in the Syrian quagmire can only stir troubles at home. At this crucial juncture in the run up to the referendum on the highly controversial constitutional amendment, 16 April, bad news from Syria is the last thing the regime in Ankara needs at present. Moreover, the worst of the news, from its perspective, is not being shaped so much by IS, which Ankara claims to be fighting, or by the groups that Ankara claims to be linked with the PKK, which are its main target, as it is by its ally, Washington, with no small help from Moscow. The upshot is that Turkey has lost considerable ground in its bid to control over northern Syria after long trying to impress the Turkish public of its ability to assert its will there.

The US has finally made it clear that it believes it’s necessary to continue its support for the Kurds in northern Syria. In a recent announcement, it declared that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of largely Kurdish militias, did not pose a threat to Turkey. Washington’s support for these forces infuriated Ankara, which continues to regard them as “terrorists”. “It is unfortunate that some of our allies have chosen the Kurdish YPG (People’s Defence Units) as their partner in the war against IS in spite of our many repeated warnings against this,” said Turkish PM Benali Yildirim.

The American stance has strengthened the hand of the SDF, the leaders of which had made it clear that Turkey could not have a role in the campaign to wrest Raqqa from IS control. “Turkey is an occupying power. It can not be allowed to occupy more Syrian territory,” said SDF Spokesman Talal Silo who went on to say that SDF officials conveyed a message to this effect during a meeting with Senator John McCain and US military officials in northern Syria in late February. “We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city,” he added confidently.

To drive the point home that there can be no Turkish role in the battle for Raqqa, US flags appeared on top of some tanks and armoured vehicles stationed in areas under SDF control. To make matters worse, the US and Russia are coordinating very closely there, and right beneath Ankara’s nose. So much was obvious when General Sergei Rudskoi, a spokesman for the Russian general staff, confirmed that Russian commanders in Syria had negotiated agreements in March in accordance with which SDF forces would cede control of a number of villages to forces loyal to Damascus.

The handover of a number of villages near Manbij, indeed, took place, bursting one of the bubbles of Erdogan’s dreams of conquest in Syria. He had previously declared that Manbij would be the next target of the Turkish backed Syrian opposition militias in the framework of Euphrates Shield. Yildirim quickly stepped to stress that Turkey would never plan a military campaign against that town without first coordinating with the US and Russia, which have forces in the vicinity. Following the handover of the villages Yildirim mumbled that Ankara had no objection to the Syrian army’s assumption of control over the villages and that “Syrian territory should belong to the Syrians.” So saying, the prime minister signalled a stunning reversal from the position that Erdogan had proclaimed with his customary bravado when he threatened to attack Kurdish forces in Manbij if they did not retreat to the east of the Euphrates. The Pentagon contributed to taking the wind out of the sails of that threat by means of the deployment of small but visible contingents of US forces there, a symbolic gesture meant to serve as a deterrent.

The Syrian army benefited in another way from the shifting scene. It was able to clear a path to the Euphrates in order to secure water supplies for Aleppo. This, too, could not have happened without some form of collaboration with the SDF and without the blessing of Uncle Sam.

All the foregoing has made life rather awkward for Turkey in Syria. In its high-profile engagement there it has been unable to fulfil its threats of all out war against Kurdish forces thanks to the Americans, aided and abetted by Moscow.

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