For Turkey the genie is out of the bottle in Syria

For Turkey the genie is out of the bottle in Syria

Now that the U.S. has finally pushed the button for the long-planned Raqqa operation in Syria to dismantle the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the genie is out of the bottle. The Pentagon expects intense fighting for Raqqa and is also aware that the ISIL threat will not disappear with the liberation of its twin capitals in Syria and Iraq: Raqqa and Mosul. Furthermore, the isolation of Qatar by the Gulf states under the patronage of Saudi Arabia, and the first major ISIL attack in Iran, also have a high potential to complicate the battle inside Syria. 

The battle of Raqqa has been at the heart of contention between Ankara and Washington since the last months of the Obama administration. The Turkish government repeatedly warned the U.S. of the possible grave consequences of partnering with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) for the Raqqa operation and equipping them with heavy weapons, including anti-tanks. 

While Ankara’s efforts to convince the Trump administration for a Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) alternative to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the main component and command of which is the YPG – failed, the Turkish argument that the YPG is simply the Syria branch of the outlawed PKK started to win adherents in high offices in Washington. In private conversations I heard key officials close to the White House talking about the overlap between the YPG and the PKK. However, nobody should expect them to publicly call a cat a cat - at least until Raqqa is liberated. 

Meanwhile, Ankara has so far refrained from taking a bold step that would result in further antagonizing the U.S. military, which was seriously irritated by Turkish strikes hitting YPG fronts back in April. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis has announced the use of the İncirlik base in southern Turkey in the Raqqa operation, which was later confirmed by the Turkish side along with comments that it was only natural!

Turkey’s veto on the use of İncirlik may be avoided for the time being, whereas preventing a Turkish-Kurdish war within the Syria context remains as a key matter of concern for the U.S. administration. Avoiding a major operation by Turks on Sinjar in Iraq, which is under Ankara’s radar because of the ongoing PKK influence there, is also a U.S. priority. 

The U.S. rhetoric for describing their partnership with the YPG/PYD as “tactical, temporary and transactional” seems to be resonating. In parallel, Washington is trying to convince Ankara that the heavy weapons will be given to the YPG fighters in small doses for specific missions, while the U.S. military officers will be closely monitoring their use. 

However, the U.S. side has not really committed itself to providing a written document or anything similar for the future collection of those weapons. The recent history of the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq shows us how quickly weapons and military equipment change hands between different combat groups. Ankara’s concerns that weapons given to YPG fighters may end up being used against Turkish citizens cannot therefore be refuted by sweet talk. 

Equally important for Turkey is the post-battle restructuring of the liberated areas, including Raqqa, which are historically populated by Sunni Arabs. Some pundits have suggested that the civil governance model tested in Manbij was a dress rehearsal for post-battle Raqqa. For Turks, however, the Manbij model is the nightmare scenario: With the YPG/PYD becoming part of the political remake instead of withdrawing to their natural territories. 

As part of efforts to ease Turkish anxieties, the Americans have recently offered to send Turkish special forces to oversee the process in Manbij. Probably we will see more similar confidence building steps as the battle for Raqqa intensifies. 

Last but not the least, just a few days after the start of the Raqqa operation, Iraqi Kurds set Sept. 25 as the date for a referendum on independence. In Syria, however, with so many variables and so many different foreign actors there will be no shortcut for Kurdish ambitions. In any case, Turkey needs to be ready for some more tough choices both in Syria and Iraq in the coming days.