Antalya meet fails to convince US, Russia on Turkish role in Raqqa

Antalya meet fails to convince US, Russia on Turkish role in Raqqa

Turkey failed to convince the United States and Russia to allow it to assume active participation in retaking the Syria town of Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, on the condition of stopping collaboration with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), diplomatic sources in Ankara have told the Hürriyet Daily News.

The sources also said that, even though none of them are yet at the implementation stage officially, the current scenarios to take Raqqa from ISIL have no active place for Turkey.

The Turkish plan for Raqqa was presented by Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar to U.S. Chairman of Joint Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Russian Chief of Armed Forces Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov during two days of meetings in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya on March 7-8.

That was a rare situation if not unique: Russia’s top general was going to be presented a military plan by a NATO member country, Turkey, at the same time and in the presence of another NATO country, the U.S. Dunford, according to diplomatic sources, agreed to reply to the invitation of Akar due to the personal friendship between them despite displeasure in Washington due to Russia’s presence.

The Turkish plan basically said the U.S. should drop the YPG as a partner, remove the Arab elements from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and combine the elements with the Turkey-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels. Then, with the help of the Turkish and U.S. armies, they would clear Raqqa of ISIL and establish a system under the “moderate opposition” there and transfer the city to the “new Syrian” administration through talks.

It was not possible to confirm so far that Gerasimov leaned into Akar and said in a friendly tone that perhaps it was time for Turkey to leave Syria, possibly after observing that Dunford was not enthusiastic about abandoning the plan which has been prepared under his supervision for months. Turkey started its Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria on Aug. 24, 2016, in support of the FSA to push ISIL militants away from the Turkish border and to prevent YPG militants from filling the gap. The move came just five weeks after the foiled military coup attempt in Turkey of July 15 and some 10 days after the Syria town of Manbij was taken from ISIL by the SDF with the help of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

The Antalya move was, in a way, a final attempt by Turkey to make its point that it was “wrong to fight a terrorist organization with the help of another terrorist group” because the positions of both the U.S. and Russia were getting clearer every other day.

On March 2, for example, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made a strong statement in an address to the U.S. and said the Turkish military would march to Manbij and hit the YPG there if any of them were left. The reply came from Russia the next day. The Russian military, headed by Gerasimov, said on March 3 that YPG forces in and around Manbij would leave their positions – under the monitoring of Russia – to Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces from that day on. That was a clear message to Turkey to stay away from the city and also annul the need to transfer the city from rebel forces to future government forces, since Turkey had proposed a similar model for Manbij before it did so for Raqqa. The next day, photos of Russian special forces went viral on social media with SDF badges on their arms, very much like the poses of the American special forces months ago with YPG badges on their arms. In a way, Manbij was taken under protection by the Americans from the north and east and by Russians from the south and west against any possible Turkish move, together with the YPG presence there.

Two days after the Antalya meetings, and while President Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey was completing his March 9-10 discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the Syrian regime, which owes its continued existence largely to the Russian military presence in the country, put in an official complaint to the United Nations and said Turkey should leave its territory. The same day, two statements were made by the American side. The State Department said they were considering continuing with the YPG and that they do not consider the YPG a terrorist organization, unlike the PKK. And CENTCOM said they deployed an artillery unit with 400 soldiers to Syria as the first batch of heavy weaponry there, possibly as a message to Turkey that they do not need its help in bringing in heavy weapons which are necessary for the Raqqa operation.

One ranking official source confirmed to the HDN on condition of anonymity on March 17 that there was no reply or feedback to the Turkish plan presented to the U.S. and Russia delegations in Antalya. “I cannot say that Antalya meetings has had a positive influence on our goals,” the same source said. “I believe our chances of taking part in the Raqqa operation are getting lower.”

The source was using a moderate and diplomatic language in reply to the question. The outlook as of today, according to diplomatic sources, is that Turkey has not been given an active position in the current Raqqa scenarios, though none of those scenarios are yet at the implementation stage. 

The Raqqa scenarios deserve detailed reporting but in none of the current plans is there a role for the YPG in the town when and if it is retaken from ISIL in order to avoid further complications, since there is no relevant Kurdish population in Raqqa and there is a degree of ethnic enmity. The role of the YPG is rather to fight with ISIL during the siege of the town.