Turkey signals end to Afrin operation
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Mar 8 in Germany that Turkey “wanted to end” its military operation in Syria’s northwestern Afrin district by May.
This is the first time a ranking Turkish official has given a timeline for a possible end to the operation, something which has been demanded by Turkey’s biggest NATO ally the U.S.
The timing is important because the statement came a few hours ahead of technical level talks in Washington D.C. between the two countries on a number of problems including a rift in Syria policies.
Turkey’s military operation in Afrin is the hottest topic on the agenda because of two main reasons.
1- Firstly, Turkey wants to clear the region of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK). But the YPG – under the PR-friendly name of Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) – has been picked by the U.S. as the ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) to the East of Euphrates River, despite Turkey’s objection and offers to help.
The U.S. complains that Turkey’s operation in Afrin some 100 km to the west of the Euphrates has distracted the YPG/PKK militants, which have gone to Afrin to join their comrades in the fight against Turkey with weaponry supplied by the U.S. for the fight against the ISIL. Therefore, there is a conflict of interests between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S.’s is tactical, specific to this part of the world, while Turkey’s is strategic and existential.
2- Secondly, the Turkish operation in Afrin has been made easier thanks to the indirect support of Russia, which names the YPG as a “U.S. proxy” and stops Syrian regime forces from attacking the Turks. The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is bothering the U.S., and so too is the trilateral cooperation with the inclusion of Iran in the framework of the Astana process for the de-escalation of tension in Syria. Israel has voiced its objections to the presence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and pro-Iran groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, on Syrian soil. The point is Russia and Iran have been invited by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the U.S. has not. The cherry on top of the cake is Turkey’s plans to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems despite their not being compatible with NATO infrastructure, on the grounds that the U.S. is not willing to sell Patriots to Turkey.
Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu said in the same statement that if the U.S. changed its mind Turkey could buy Patriots too.
So Çavuşoğlu gave two promising signals to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in Ankara on Feb 15-16 and is scheduled to host Çavuşoğlu in Washington D.C on Mar 19. The first is the desire to end the Afrin operation by May, which appeases the U.S.’s request to announce a timeline, and the second is a call to the U.S. administration to set aside the de facto sanction of arms sales on Turkey and continue cooperation.
There is a question here: Why did Çavuşoğlu not say Turkey was to stop the operation by May, but “wanted” to do so? The answer lies in the delivery of former promises given by Americans, mainly two of them: Removing the YPG/PKK from the town of Manbij, on the west bank of the River Euphrates, and handing back the region to native Arabs who migrated mainly to Turkey when the civil war broke. The U.S. should also stop giving new generation weaponry to the YPG and start taking back what they have given, now that the ISIL has been defeated.
It is worth watching what kind of an influence Çavuşoğlu’s messages will have on the diplomatic talks of Mar 8-9 in D.C.