What is Turkey still doing in Syria? It is a perplexing question that has grown more insistent since the end of the so-called “Peace Spring” operation in northeast Syria. But it is a question not raised by the pro-Erdogan media and its readership, while it is only broached at great risk by opposition news outlets. Within the first three days of that operation, Turkish Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu launched investigations into more than 500 people and arrested 121 on the grounds of “insulting” the operation.
The two operations before this, Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, also elicited considerable criticism, often tinged with sarcasm. The clampdowns on opposing voices have grown harsher each time. What is startling this time is that Ankara announced a halt to its third operation only hours after the foreign minister had threatened to launch a fourth operation on the pretext that the border zone had not yet been cleared of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The reason for the sudden U-turn was obvious. “The Russian Defence Ministry was surprised to hear Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s statement about Russia’s alleged failure to fulfil its promises, as well as his threats about an operation in northern Syria,” Russian Defence Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told reporters last week. “The Turkish top diplomat’s statement calling for military activities may raise tensions in Syria’s north instead of easing them in accordance with a joint memorandum signed by the presidents of Russia and Turkey.”
The Kremlin was clearly angered by the Erdogan regime’s reversion to warmongering against Syrian Kurds. Another indication was the escalation in Damascus’s military and media campaign against Turkish-backed Syrian militias in the buffer zone in Idlib. This could not have occurred without a green light from Russia, and Ankara clearly got the message that this was in response to what Moscow regarded as Turkish provocation.
Tensions between Ankara and Moscow appear to be on the rise again. According to Yeni Safak, a Turkish daily that is close to Erdogan, Moscow rejected a Turkish demand to undertake certain military actions in the vicinity of Tel Tamr in order to take control of the M-4 highway. (Turkey had originally designated this strategic highway, which runs parallel to the Turkish border, as the goal of its Peace Spring offensive.) Yeni Safak said that the demand had been made in a meeting between Russian and Turkish military officials in Tel Abyad and added that the Russian rejection “could adversely affect relations between Moscow and Ankara”.
It has been suggested that Ankara has grown feisty as it has become increasingly clear that that the “gains” from its operation were less than anticipated. Developments on the ground in northern Syria confirm this.
On Sunday, 24 November, Ankara awoke to the news that the US-led international coalition intended to resume operations against the Islamic State (IS) group in collaboration with the SDF. Speaking on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue on regional security, the head of US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, said that the US now had 500 military personnel “generally east of the Euphrates river east of Deir Al-Zor up to Hasaka, northeast all the way up into extreme northeast Syria.” He added: “It is our intention to remain in that position working with our SDF partners to continue operations against IS down the Euphrates river valley where those targets present themselves.”
Meanwhile, on 23 November, US Vice President Mike Pence, speaking from Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, stressed Washington’s continued support for the Kurdish people and partnership with Kurdish forces. He wanted to “reiterate the strong bonds forged in the fires of war between the people of the United States and the Kurdish people across the region”, he said, sending another clear message that the White House would continue support of the SDF.
In the opinion of Ahval columnist and former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis, Turkey’s operation in northern Syria has effectively backfired. “Turkey’s efforts to punish the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) have helped promote Kurdish identity in Syria,” he wrote. He held that from the outset of its intervention in Syria, Ankara failed to adopt a “rational policy” towards the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria. Instead of pushing the PYD towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), it could have tried to work out a “modus vivendi” as it had with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
“Turkey’s choice of the wrong policy options in Syria has not stopped,” said Yakis, who had previously served as Ankara’s ambassador to Cairo. “Last month, it made two agreements, one with the United States, the other with Russia. Thanks to these two agreements, Turkey managed to realise the plan it had cherished for years: the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border, between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn.” As a result, the chances of the Kurds establishing a semi-autonomous or autonomous enclave next to the Turkish border have been greatly minimised.
“But there is a flip side to the coin,” Yakis continued. “When Turkey asked the United States and Russia for Kurdish fighters to be expelled from the safe zone, the United States pulled them to the southern part of northeast Syria to protect the oil wells, and decided to allocate the income to the group as well. Turkey succeeded in pushing Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border, but they moved to an area under US and Russian protection.”
On top of this came US Congressional actions to further protect the Kurdish fighters. As Yakis relates, “they sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a strongly worded letter saying: ‘Given the stakes, time is of the essence. We ask that you immediately let us know if Turkey and/or its proxy forces are operating outside of the area that runs east-west between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn and south about 30 kilometres to the M4-M10 road. If so, does the administration plan to impose sanctions on Turkey for violating the 17 October agreement?’”
The former Turkish foreign minister notes, “the tone of the letter implies that the movement of the Turkish army ‘and its proxies’ will come under strict scrutiny.” “Therefore, Turkey’s efforts are likely to produce the opposite of what it was originally looking for,” Yakis concludes. “The Kurds will find a safe haven where they will be able to promote their identity, like the Kurds of northern Iraq. After the Syrian crisis is over, the Syrian Kurds will probably come back to their original home with a consolidated identity.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.