A pessimistic scenario for Turkey in Syria
The Turkish military operation in Syria is continuing at full steam as Turkish diplomats meet with their American counterparts in the U.S. in a bid to decrease the tension between the two NATO allies.
Yesterday, March 7, Turkish jets launched yet another operation against People’s Protection Units (YPG) strongholds in the Afrin district of Syria. The YPG is essentially the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdish state since 1984.
One of the major problems between Ankara and Washington is the fact that the YPG has been picked by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) as the ground partner against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) due to the U.S.’s no-boots-on-the-ground policy. That partnership is despite the fact that the PKK is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government and the YPG is acknowledged as an extension of it. Turkey wants its NATO partner to stop collaborating with an existential threat to the country and has offered more help against ISIL. U.S. officials say they understand Turkey’s security concerns but also accuse Turkey of distracting the YPG/PKK’s attention from the fight against ISIL. The Turks, in response, accuse the Americans of not keeping their promises about relations with YPG.
Another problem emerges from Russia’s implicit support for Turkey’s military operations in Syria against the YPG. The PKK is not on Moscow’s official terrorism list but the Russians tell the Turks that they consider the YPG a “U.S. proxy” organization, working as a stooge for American interests in Syria. In the same context, Tehran accuses the YPG/PKK of acting in line with American and Israeli interests against Iran.
Turkey’s military operation in Afrin would be much more difficult without Moscow’s influence over Damascus. Russia is the prime supporter of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, together with Iran. Turkey, on the other hand, has long been against the al-Assad regime, supporting the Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels against him and acting together with the West on this issue. However, Russia, Turkey and Iran are currently also cooperating for a de-escalation of tension in Syria within the framework of the Astana process as a compliment to the Geneva conferences on the future of Syria. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are expected to meet again in Turkey in April.
But this state of tangled stalemate could change to Turkey’s disadvantage if the U.S. and Russia shake hands on a framework for the future of Syria ahead of the Geneva talks. That does not seem easy for the time being, because - unlike Russia and Iran - the U.S. is neither an invited nor a welcome force by the Syrian regime.
But here are two scenarios that could change the outlook:
1- What if Putin convinces U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize al-Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria, as a fighter against Islamist radicalism who has proven his ruthlessness against all types of opposition in the boldest possible way for the last seven years?
2- What if, as a part of the deal, Russia - which has not hidden the fact that it is in favor of a federative Syria - could approve some form of Kurdish autonomy, providing that it does not spill over to the western bank of the Euphrates River (excluding the town of Manbij, which Turkey is sensitive of), and oil-rich regions like Deir ez-Zor?
The second scenario would not please Iran. But Tehran would not be likely to object to the option provided by the first question, as it would not harm its links with Hezbollah in Lebanon and other pro-Iran militias on the ground.
Although not much seen in the picture, EU countries like France and Germany, the U.K., Russia’s strategy partner China, and Saudi Arabia are also in the game. So keeping all alliance options open and bringing new players to the diplomatic table, especially those from the EU, could be in Turkey’s best interests at this stage.