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A framework for a solution in Syria needs to be found before an offensive on Raqqa, which seems to be in the planning stages between Turkey and the United States, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will be retreating after the eventual fall of Al Bab, according to a military and political strategist.
Reaching a consensus among the players was important after the possible fall of Al Bab, said Prof. Atilla Sandıklı. “Otherwise you cannot build a structure that will enable all these different groups and elements to act in a synchronized way. Without it, what comes after the fall of Raqqa will be highly complicated,” the head of Bilgesam (the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies) said. Was Turkey’s operation inside Syria a surprise or was it saying, “I am coming?”
It was saying “I am coming,” and it was a necessary one. Because the necessary conditions both on the ground and in the international environment were maturing.
Earlier we did not want a Turkish intervention in Syria because ISIL was at the peak of its power, its morale and motivation were very high and it was not yet targeting Turkey. An intervention at that time would have been costly.
ISIL is getting weak financially. It has lost territories; its strength is falling from its peak; it is losing its offensive motivation and its defensive capabilities have started to weaken too. That was in part thanks to coalition forces attacks.
Then the Democratic Union Party (PYD) crossed to the west of the Euphrates (River) and got hold of Manbij.
Although the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took over Manbij, the key structure in it is the PYD. Had the PYD gotten ahold of Al Bab, that would have been a problematic situation for Turkey, since Turkey does not want to see the PYD west of the Euphrates.
The fall of Manbij meant the siege of Jarablus. I knew from the beginning that ISIL would not show resistance in Jarablus, because Turkey is in the north, to the east there is the PYD and to the south there is Manbij. The moment an offensive started from the north it was obvious that they would withdraw to Al Bab to minimize their losses.
So on the one hand the area has been cleared of ISIL and on the other a message has been sent to the PYD.
With improving relations with the Russians, we got Moscow on our side. And seeing that rapprochement, the U.S. also showed it was a good ally to Turkey. Initially the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was not getting enough support from the coalition forces, yet it did receive that support during Operation Euphrates Shield.
So the international environment was also ripe for the offensive. The incidents (the July 15 failed coup attempt in Turkey) with the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) delayed it a little bit. Some international commentators believe Turkey’s real target is the PYD, not ISIL.
Turkey wants to cleanse ISIL from its frontier. Meanwhile Turkey has been saying that within the framework of the territorial integrity of Syria that it does not want to see the creation of a separate entity in the north of Syria. The PYD is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), which is a threat to us. Turkey does not do anything in secret; it has been saying that it will not allow the PYD get hold of the Jarablus-Mare line and thus acquire control of the border. How do you think the operation has gone so far?
It looks like Turkey is conducting this operation, but actually it is the FSA; Turkey is supporting an FSA offensive. If Turkey had conducted the offensive, it would have progressed much faster and it could get ahold of Al Bab very easily. In order to avoid a false perception that Turkey is invading the region, and just like other countries which are supporting other groups, Turkey is providing tactical and logistic support to the FSA. There are claims in international circles that Turkey will stay, but the government is saying that this is not the case and that Turkey is for the territorial integrity of Syria.
Looking from a military point of view, the area in control is one of 770-square-km and the losses are limited. Now works to provide water and electricity to Jarablus have been initiated and Syrians have started to go back; life is getting back to normal. A military operation needs to also fulfill political targets. Turkey is also sending the message that it is there to improve the lives of Syrians. The FSA had until recently not shown any meaningful presence in the region. What happened?
Motivation is an essential factor in military operations. Success depends on your strength and also on the support you receive as well as the strength and the support received by the adversary.
The FSA initially lacked support. But first, it gained some experience and gained strength, and second, Turkey’s support became clearer and more decisive, and it also got the support of the international coalition. The FSA’s motivation increased.
In the meantime its adversary lost strength. What will come next?
Turkey is now present in the field. That means Turkey is also now on the political chess board. That was not the case previously. Being present in the field means that what Turkey says will be taken under consideration.
But it is not enough. Al Bab is critical. ISIL has retreated to Al Bab. Manbij is to the east of Al Bab and the FSA forces are in the north. If the two were to cooperate, the fall of Al Bab could happen very fast. The FSA could cooperate with the Arabs within the SDF. But the PYD needs to retreat. So the United States should convince the PYD to retreat. And if the FSA and the Arab forces within the SDF were to act in a synchronized manner, together with the support of the coalition forces, Al Bab could fall quickly. And that will leave Raqqa. To see ISIL cleansed from Al Bab would benefit all, including the Syrians, the Russians and the Americans.
The fall of Al Bab is important but that should be done without the PYD. There are no Kurds in the region. Probably Turkey is now putting pressure on the U.S. in that direction.
But Turkey also needs to pay attention to the perception. It should not look like the force directing the operation, but supporting the operation, otherwise it can attract the reaction of the international community. Is there a risk of overstretching if Turkish tanks were to go as far as Al Bab to support the operation?
Indeed there is such risk. But this needs to be done. Turkey needs to give assurances to coalition members, Russia, Iran
and even Syria that it will not stay there permanently and that it will retreat. Without Turkish tanks an offensive on Al Bab will be very costly.There was news that Turkey and the U.S. might be planning an offensive on Raqqa too. What do you think about that?
The success of the offensive on Al Bab could be a model for Raqqa too. We need to ask this question: Would the U.S., Russia, Iran
and Syria want to see ISIL defeated in Raqqa? They would. Russia
and Syria might have some concerns in terms of the territorial integrity of Syria, but if there is a common will to defeat ISIL then we need to find the optimal point among everybody; we need to provide answers to possible concerns. This is what will happen in the period ahead. Talks will intensify for a solution in Syria. I think the Geneva talks will intensify after the fall of Al Bab. That is necessary to come to the point of conducting an offensive on Raqqa.So, you are saying that talks for a political solution need to go in parallel with the military offensives.
A framework for a solution needs to be found following the fall of Al Bab. Otherwise you cannot build a structure that will enable all these different groups and elements to act in a synchronized way. Without it, what comes after the fall of Raqqa will be highly complicated.
And Turkey needs to decide on what it wants. And then it needs to look or work for the common ground of consensus with all the relevant actors. It needs to see ways of alleviating the concerns of those actors. We need to find a political discourse that can meet the expectations of these actors and endorse rhetoric and actions parallel to that.
Turkey sometimes endorses a rhetoric that can negatively affect the sensitivities of other players.
Who is Atilla Sandıklı?
Atilla Sandıklı was born in İzmir in 1957. Following graduation from high school, he entered the Turkish Military Academy before obtaining post-graduate degrees from Istanbul University’s International Relations Department.
Sandıklı served in various postings in the Turkish Armed Forces. He worked on the National Security Council (MGK) and also served as the head of the international relations department at the Turkish War Colleges.
He founded the Strategic Research Center of the Turkish War Colleges and worked as the president of the center.
Following his retirement, he worked as the founding member of Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM).
Sandıklı then founded the Wise Men Strategic Research Center (BİLGESAM), where he is the current president. He is also the head of the International Relations Department of Istanbul’s Haliç University.