Turkey should prepare for all eventualities in Syria
Turkey is forging on against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, amid statements from the government about major advances under its “Operation Olive Branch.”
Indications suggest that Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies are getting closer to Afrin city day by day.
Reports from outside sources, many of them contradicting Turkish statements, are considered by Ankara to be propaganda ploys aimed at undermining the efforts of the Turkish military in northern Syria.
However, the recent claim that Turkish soldiers and the FSA killed 36 fighters attached to the Syrian regime, who were said to be aiding the YPG, had elicited no response from Ankara at the time of writing.
If true - and it must be stressed that this report has yet to be confirmed - this would take the Afrin operation to a new level. Ankara was already angered when Iranian-backed militias loyal to Bashar al-Assad entered Afrin.
It said warning shots from Turkish artillery had stopped these militias in their tracks, but reports from the region say regime forces remain in Afrin. On March 5, Hürriyet also quoted al-Assad as saying in a statement that Syrian regime forces are in Afrin, warning that “when a threat from foreigners emerges, all elements have to unite.”
These remarks show that whatever al-Assad may think about the YPG’s ongoing collaboration with the U.S. military, he is prepared to cooperate with the group against Turkey. Many Turks are now wondering whether all this means war between Turkey and Syria.
This situation also begs the question of what happens in that event to Ankara’s ties with Moscow and Tehran.
Tellingly, Iranian Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to the country’s religious leader Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying over the weekend that Turkey was an “invading force” in Syria, calling on Ankara to leave the country. This echoed an earlier call by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
If Turkey and Syria do engage in an open military confrontation, it unlikely that Iran will just watch this from the sidelines. It will most likely use its proxies on the ground against Turkish forces. Iran is pursuing its own strategic aims in Syria and will not want to see Turkey make gains against its protégé in Damascus.
There is also the question of how Russia will react if Ankara and Damascus end up in a military faceoff. Will it allow this to happen or will it intervene by, for example, closing Syrian airspace to Turkish jets?
In any event, Moscow will try to use its influence over Turkey and its support for al-Assad to mediate between Ankara and Damascus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already called on Turkey and Syria to resolve their differences over Afrin through dialogue.
Lavrov’s statement was not something that Turkey desired or needed at such a sensitive moment in its “Operation Olive Branch.” Ankara does not want to make Damascus a party to its dispute with the YPG, and therefore wants regime forces out of Afrin.
But this in turn increases suspicions in Moscow and Tehran about Ankara’s intentions. Turkey is obviously strong militarily in northern Syria.
Still, it may be heading for difficulties with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran over its presence there. Ankara has to prepare for all eventualities in a Syria where it is no longer clear who is with whom and against whom.
It is worth trying to understand better what the implications of certain developments will ultimately be for Turkey.