Is Ankara losing political ground in Syria?

Is Ankara losing political ground in Syria?

When the news hit the wires on March 7 about a surprise meeting in Turkey between the Turkish, American and Russian top generals on Syria and Iraq, there were suggestions that there might be room for a joint strategy where Turkish concerns would be met, even if not fully. Gen. Hulusi Akar of the Chief of Turkish General Staff hosted Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya for two days and had bilateral and trilateral meetings with their staffs for two days.

The purpose of meeting was explained by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım as an effort to coordinate the fight against terror and not let any accidents occur in the meantime. Yet Turkish expectations were clear.

 Turkey objects to U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, in Syria. The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is regarded as the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

The PKK, a designated terrorist organization according to Turkey and the U.S., has been battling Turkey for the last three decades. President Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish officials have been saying for a long time that if the U.S. would abandon cooperation with the YPG, then Turkey and the Syrian Arab rebels who are supported by Turkey would fully cooperate to take the key Syrian city of Raqqa from ISIL. In order to camouflage the U.S. dependence on the YPG, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was formed with the participation of a few Arab tribes and, in such a fashion, the town of Manbij was retaken from ISIL. The YPG presence in Manbij has been a matter of conflict between the two NATO allies since it was retaken in August 2016.

Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels who have been conducting the Euphrates Shield Operation in Syria against ISIL since August 2016, could march on Manbij if the YPG did not withdraw.

Ironically enough, the answer came in a Russian statement. The Russians said that the YPG would evacuate the positions in and around Manbij to Syrian regime forces under their control. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made his move in order not to let the Kurdish card in Syria fall into American hands. Before a Kurdish conference organized in Moscow on Feb. 15, where the PYD was also invited, a Russian draft for a constitution for the “new Syria” included the possibility of a Kurdish autonomy in Syria. 

The Russian move for Manbij came two days before the Antalya meeting. The Antalya meeting of the three generals ended without a joint statement. But as soon as the meeting was over, Mark Toner, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said they would continue to support the YPG in the fight against ISIL. The U.S. would continue to designate the PKK as terrorists, despite knowing the organic links in between, but would not call the YPG as terrorists. On March 9, Toner’s remarks were posed to Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın, who said: “Detailed talks were carried out for Raqqa. No decision has been made yet.” Kalın was probably referring to an expected statement from U.S. President Donald Trump. 

On the same day came the news of the American deployment of artillery units to Syria in preparations for the Raqqa operation, which implied that the U.S. may not ask for Turkish cooperation in order not to cause further complications. And also the “safe zone” in Syria that Turkey has been asking for from the international community could well be established by the Jordanian border, not the Turkish one.

The Russians have not remained idle either. Photos showing Russian troops reportedly around Manbij with SDF badges were released via social media as if to give the “We are here, no traffic accidents, remember” message.

Erdoğan is going to Moscow today on March 10 to meet Putin. The government sources informed the press that the issues of Syria, the YPG and the purchase of S-400 defense systems would be on the agenda. But the Russian government informed Russian media a day before the Antalya meetings that energy issues would be discussed, notably the Turkish Stream pipeline to carry Russian gas to southern Europe and the construction of another nuclear power plant in Turkey. Different agendas it seems.

It is true that the final decisions regarding the anti-ISIL fight in Syria have not been revealed yet. But the indications so far show that the Turkish thesis of singling out the YPG might be losing ground, even though Ankara’s fingers remain crossed.