Turkey Treads a Fine Line in Syria
President Donald Trump’s December 19, 2018 decision to withdraw US troops from Syria received a euphoric response in Turkey. That was not surprising since the US military presence and support for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) has been a source of friction between Washington and Ankara. A week before the US announcement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to launch a military operation in northern Syria to decimate the YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. In fact, on December 17, Erdogan had said that Turkey is ready to launch an operation “at any moment” to take control of Manbij, a city in northern Syria currently under the control of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He had also claimed that Trump has given a “positive response” to this Turkish plan.
Its initial reaction notwithstanding, the US announcement has forced Turkey to take a cautious view of the implications of the withdrawal of US troops. This is because Turkey has to take into account the views of other stakeholders, namely, Russia, Iran, the Assad regime and even the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which it supports. Consequently, on December 21, Erdogan announced the postponement of the military operation in Manbij. Explaining his rationale for the postponement, he said Turkey wants to “see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.” Though Erdogan asserted that it is not an “open-ended wait,” another Turkish military offensive in Syria could prove counterproductive in the given situation. Significantly, on December 31, 2018, Trump tweeted that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria will be carried out “slowly.” Reportedly, the final US withdrawal can take up to months, and Turkey will have to consider the full implications of the ensuing vacuum before making any move.
The Russian and Iranian positions in Syria have gained a significant boost due to Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces. Bashar al-Assad’s position has also become stronger. Both Russia and Iran support Assad’s position that the entire Syrian territory should come under his control before any political process can start. There are, however, differences on the Kurdish question between Russia, on the one hand, and Iran and the Assad regime, on the other. President Vladimir Putin is more amenable to having a federal structure to address Kurdish claims for self-determination. But this is not acceptable to Assad and Iran, whose priority is re-establishing the regime’s sovereign control over all the territory of Syria.
For Turkey, the Kurdish question is critical. It is more agreeable to the Iran and Syrian regime’s position on the Kurds because it sees any legalization of Kurdish control in northern Syria as detrimental to Turkish national security. Erdogan wants an immediate end to Kurdish control in northern Syria, and instead prefers a larger role for the FSA which is dominated by Turkmen and Sunni Arabs. This is, however, not acceptable to either Russia or Iran, which favour the Assad regime to take control of areas vacated by the US troops.
Turkey cannot proceed on its planned “East of the Euphrates” operation due to the Russian opposition and the likelihood of clashes with Syrian regime forces as well as with the SDF. This has forced Ankara to send a high level delegation comprising Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan and presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin to Moscow to discuss the way forward. The Russian position on the issue has been consistent. Before the arrival of the delegation, the spokeswoman of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, stated that “in accordance with international law and considering the path that Syria and the Syrian people have traveled down,” the Syrian government should inherit the control of the areas vacated by US forces. Media reports suggest that, with Russian consent, the Assad regime and SDF have entered into an understanding to coordinate the post-US withdrawal situation in Manbij, thereby thwarting Turkish plans.
Even though Turkish analysts are hopeful of a positive outcome to the delegation level meetings in Moscow and have argued that geopolitics is in Turkey’s favour because of US support and close cooperation with Russia, Erdogan is more cautious. Both Russia and Turkey have come a long way from the time when, in September 2015, Turkey had shot down a Russian warplane. The Russian-Turkish rapprochement has taken serious strides, with the two, along with Iran, working to find a peaceful solution in Syria. This was instrumental in easing tensions in Syria, the establishment of the de-escalation zones under the Astana process, and finding a way to resolve the differences over Idlib. In September 2018, Ankara and Moscow had agreed to establish de-militarised zones in Idlib to avoid a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held enclave. Furthermore, Turkey, during its past military operations in Syria, including Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017) and the Afrin offensive (January-February 2018), has coordinated with Russia.
Their growing cooperation in Syria have led to Moscow and Ankara moving to strengthen economic ties, especially in the area of energy cooperation. In November 2018, Putin and Erdogan jointly inaugurated the sea section of TurkStream, a gas pipeline to supply natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe and Turkey through the Black Sea. The project is being helmed by the Russian energy giant Gazprom and is expected to be ready to supply gas to Turkey by the end of 2019. Turkey, which is going through a difficult economic crisis and is dependent on imports for energy security, cannot afford to antagonise Russia.
Though Turkey’s Defence Minister has said that its armed forces will decimate the Kurdish terrorists, that is, SDF and YPG, Moscow is unlikely to give the green signal for a full-fledged Turkish offensive. The emerging scenario in northern Syria due to the planned US military withdrawal is yet to become completely clear. While Syrian Kurds seem to have lost a crucial supporter in the US, they might move closer to Russia. In such a scenario, and if they seek a political solution within the framework of the Astana process, it is unlikely that Ankara will be allowed to take control of the areas vacated by the US. Erdogan is well aware of the emerging dynamics and is treading a fine line between managing relations with the US, Turkey’s perceived security threats and Russian concerns over the Syrian peace process.