Syria set to remain an open-ended crisis
The situation in Syria is getting even more complicated and confusing. After Russia’s failed attempt to bring the representatives of the warring sides together in Sochi, the military dimension has come to the foreground again. Eyes may now turn to the U.N. sponsored Geneva talks, but there is little hope that these will produce much progress, given the current atmosphere of continued hostility among the concerned parties.
The Russian and Syrian regime are continuing with their onslaught in Idlib, a province they want to clear of all opposition elements, and not just radical Islamic groups such as al-Nusra. The downing of a Russian jet, reportedly by al-Nusra fighters, is likely to fuel a brutal retaliatory dimension to the battle there.
Turkey’s onslaught in Afrin against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), north of Idlib, is also continuing and making headway, according to statements from the government and the military. But even pro-government analysts are saying this operation is “open-ended,” which shows no-one really knows how long the Turkish army needs to meet its objectives.
This question is likely to get more crucial for the Turkish public as the number of casualties among Turkish soldiers increases. The past few days have not been very good in this respect, although the losses incurred are unlikely to dent Ankara’s determination to pursue this operation.
Availing of the distractions in Afrin and Idlib, and clearly aware of Ankara’s openly expressed determination to clear the whole Turkey-Syria border region from groups Ankara sees as “terrorists,” the U.S. and its Kurdish YPG allies are hunkering down east and immediately west of the Euphrates River, preparing for a variety of eventualities.
These include a possible confrontation between Turkish and U.S. forces, a possibility that cannot be brushed aside following the latest statements from Ankara. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ reiterated once again over the weekend, in an interview with CNN Türk, that Turkey will eventually move on to Manbij, and the territory east of the Euphrates River, which is held by the YPG with support from the U.S. military.
Bozdağ also warned that U.S. military personnel posing as YPG fighters would be targeted. Meanwhile, Washington insists that where U.S. forces will remain in the areas where they have been deployed.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said a few days ago that talks with Ankara were ongoing but that he would not go into details. We have to see what this means, given the U.S. determination to remain in Syria. We know from State Secretary Rex Tillerson that Washington has made staying in Syria a strategic priority.
In short, a possible military standoff between Turkey and the U.S. no longer appears as farfetched as it might have once.
Meanwhile there are columnists and analysts who are questioning whether Turkey is right to rely so much on Russia in Syria. Ankara and Moscow remain at odds on many levels as far as the core struggle between the regime and the opposition is concerned.
This relationship still has the potential to turn sour very quickly over a number of issues, including Russia’s determination not to lose the Kurds completely to the Americans in Syria.
There is still no clear indication that Ankara and Moscow agree, any more than Ankara and Washington do, over how a post-war Syria would shape up.
With no clear collective international vision regarding the future of Syria, the only option appears to be continuing war.
In other words, this “open-ended” crisis, with all the humanitarian suffering it entails, is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is not clear who will emerge as the winner in the end and who the loser.
The only certainty is that the Syrian people, who have suffered so much, are already the losers.