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Turkey and North Syria: Who Sets the Limits

Democratic Arab Center

As Russia sends three submarines to enhance its military presence in the East Mediterranean, off the Syrian coasts, Bashar Al Assad continues his attacks south of Damascus, north of Hama, and east of Aleppo. US military experts are debating whether the 300 Special Forces soldiers already there are enough to fight ISIL in Raqqa. The main complaint of the experts is that while there are enough allied armed groups on the ground to fight, they usually turn against each other before they attack ISIL.

But no one asks the logical question: Why do they do that? There are forces allied with the PKK; other forces backed by Turkey; there is the Free Syrian Army (FSA); and there are many other smaller organizations. The answer is simple: Fighting ISIL is secondary to the quest of achieving diverging goals. If fighting the terrorist group serves their agendas, they will do so. If not, the groups will fight each other, so long as their objectives are opposed to one another.

This has always been clear, particularly in the case of the YPG and the Turkish-supported groups. The only way to properly liberate northern Syria from ISIL is to reach a political consensus about the limits of Turkey and the Kurds and fairly arbitrate between the two sides when needed. If not, the fight will continue unabated, even if ISIL is gone.

Yet, even limiting the role of each of the warring groups will far from solve the issue. We are ultimately talking about Syrian territories. Syrians should have a say in deciding the future of any part of their own country. This requires elevating the proposed “final-status” plan from dividing the north into “spheres of action” to include the whole country and the way it is governed.

We understand that ISIL is currently planning a fresh wave of attacks against Western targets while Raqqa is approaching its final days as the capital of the so-called Islamic State. This means there is no time to reach the political deals mentioned above. While this is the product of the “ISIL First” strategy of the Obama administration, the debate about increasing US troops should therefore be expected.

However, the US effort to free Raqqa should carry on in earnest. Every additional day with Raqqa, or any other urban center for this matter, under the control of ISIL is risky in a time when the group knows it is on the path of total military defeat. There is an urgent need to reach an understanding with Ankara before the battle of Raqqa.

To show where the current momentum is taking all the players, we must listen to what General Stephan Townsend said last month. “Turkey doesn’t want to see us operating with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) anywhere, particularly in Raqqa. We think there’s an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external attack planning going on there. I think we need to go pretty soon. And I think that we’ll go with the forces that can go on the timeline that we need,” the general said.

The general was effectively saying that the US will continue cooperating with the Kurdish-majority SDF, despite Turkey’s objections.

Following Townsend’s statement, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyep Erdoğan called President Obama and promised to send Turkish troops to Raqqa. But the question was to what extent the Turkish military will remain strictly within the limits of the mission to recapture Raqqa. The subject is currently under consideration in both Washington and Ankara.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest raised the issue during his briefing on October 27. “We’re mindful of how complicated this space is. It’s important that Turkey’s military actions are well coordinated to prevent any sort of unintended consequence or unintended escalation among competing interests in that region of the world,” he said.

Turkey is coming under additional pressure in northern Syria. Erdogan had to ground his air raids in the area after receiving a warning from Assad that Syrian air defenses will shoot any Turkish jet in Syria’s air space. Turkish officials said that their military jets ceased their operations over northern Syria on October 22, after Damascus’s warnings. On the surface, the Assad warning seems to help Washington convince Erdogan to halt his attacks against the YPG-dominated SDF.

Now, while the SDF will always receive assistance from the coalition air forces, the Euphrates Shield (ES) backed by Turkey will not enjoy the same advantage provided by Ankara’s air force prior to October 22. This will have ramifications for the battle of Manbij, which was expected soon between the SDF and the ES, and for the battle of Al Bab, in which ES will confront ISIL. It may also reduce the role of the ES in the battle of Raqqa and allow the Americans to work comfortably with the SDF, regardless of Turkey’s protests.

But we have learned that Erdogan never runs out of counter-plans. On October 24, Turkish ground forces crossed the borders into Syria “to fight ISIL.” Ankara will never passively allow the YPG to connect Kobani and Afrin. Already, the battle of Al Bab has been delayed and the battle of Manbij has become uncertain.

The Assad-US-PKK determination to restrict the Turkish role in northern Syria will further complicate the situation in the post-ISIL era. If we take ISIL out of the current equation, the dynamics there will not change in any fundamental way, except that the US will pull out its troops, all the while declaring that its’ mission is accomplished. What will remain is the SDF, ES, FSA, the Turks, Assad et. al, and the Russians. We will certainly see a continuation of the conflict. Such situations are usually breeding grounds for groups like ISIL.

The battle of Aleppo complicates the situation further. No one believes that if Aleppo falls to the Shia militias and Assad forces, which is very unlikely, north Syria will be pacified. Assad hopes to capture Aleppo, but his share of the city, its western quarters, are coming under attack.  We should nonetheless be aware of what he hopes to achieve.

The logic of the conflict is that it is now waged through proxies. A weakening of the proxies will inch the conflict closer to a more dangerous phase. Neither Turkey nor the Arabs will leave the north of Syria to the PKK or to Iran.

The time for a fresh Syrian strategy is past due. But let us hope it will come soon.

Source : Middle East Briefing

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