Changing paradigm in Syria and possible consequences
Turkey’s intervention in Syria’s Afrin has opened a new chapter in the Syrian problem. For several years, Turkey has argued that its legitimate security concerns have been ignored by its allies and that the unfolding civil strife in Syria has dramatically exacerbated those concerns. But Turkey has also argued that the fundamental cause of the Syrian quagmire is anti-democratic governance in Damascus.
Rapid development of events in the Syrian theatre transformed the conflict into a fight against terrorism. Today, the international community still prioritizes the eradication of terrorist groups from the Syrian territory. Turkey’s own security concerns and its fight against terrorism have not been incorporated into strategic thinking. Now that the overall situation in Syria has drastically weakened radical terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), Turkey has been waiting for its allies to consider its own security concerns. Regrettably, the Afrin operation has been launched because Turkey has been left alone on this front.
One would have preferred to resolve Turkey’s concerns through diplomatic efforts. As this has not been possible, Turkey has used diplomacy simply as an instrument to inform the major actors in Syria about the decision it has taken. The United States, Russia, Iran, the European Union, NATO and the Syrian government have all been informed.
So far, Turkey’s line of action has not been seriously challenged. The U.S. Secretary of Defense has repeatedly said Turkey has legitimate security concerns along its southern borders. Those remarks suggest that even if the U.S. may not fully approve of Turkey’s Afrin operation, it will not actively object to it. Iran, however, has requested the termination of the military operation. France has asked the U.N. Security Council to convene a meeting to discuss the situation in Syria, including Turkey’s Afrin operation, and developments in East Gouta and in Idlib.
Turkey has explained the military objectives of the operation. The aim is to establish an area free of terrorist groups 30 kilometers deep and 130 kilometers wide. If this aim is achieved, Turkey will be able to control its Syrian border, which has been porous in the past, and has allowed terrorist groups to infiltrate Turkish territory.
Such control will not only enhance Turkey’s security but also strengthen efforts to catch ISIL terrorists using Turkey to reach Europe, with the help of other groups controlling the Afrin region. Therefore, Turkey’s Afrin operation, in addition to meeting Turkey’s own security concerns, would also enhance European security.
However, the operation is not entirely free of risks and repercussions, both militarily and politically. Militarily, it is obvious that Turkey has been able to launch the operation in coordination with the acquiescence of Russia. Therefore, the Syrian government may also expect Russia’s consent to fulfill its strategic target of removing Idlib from opposition control. Russia, therefore, has to abide by the principles agreed upon in Astana to ensure the implementation of the de-escalation zones in Syria, particularly in and around Idlib. The Idlib de-escalation zone, first and foremost, is Turkey and Russia’s joint responsibility. Russia’s position in the Idlib-Afrin platform, therefore, is of utmost importance.
As far as the political implications are concerned, Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation should not negatively affect the meeting planned to take place in Russia’s Sochi next week. That meeting is set to be the main prelude to the continuation of the Geneva peace talks. These latter discussions, eventually, should serve as a much more significant “olive branch” to extend to all parties involved in the Syrian quagmire. Turkey, from this point of view, should stick to its already declared objectives in the military operation without changing its parameters, as was the case in “Operation Euphrates Shield.” Such consistency will also ensure the success of the Sochi meeting.