Turkey’s Syria moves as Trump deadline gets near
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık announced on Feb. 23 that the Syrian town of al-Bab had been largely captured from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DEASH, by Turkish-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) forces during the Euphrates Shield operation, as a new round of talks were set to start in Geneva for the political future of the war-torn country.
The announcement came after extensive talks between Turkish and U.S. officials for the last couple of weeks at every level, from Presidents Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump to the defense ministers, chiefs of staff and intelligence heads. Turkey wants to convince the U.S. administration on one issue before the deadline given by Trump to the Pentagon expires on Feb. 28 about a new plan in the fight against ISIL. That is to work together as two major allies of the Western defense alliance NATO to deliver a final blow to ISIL in Syria, if the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) abandons its current partner on the ground and collaborates with Turkey, especially in the key operation against the ISIL headquarters in the city of Raqqa.
The Barack Obama administration picked the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as their partner on the ground since Obama insisted on his no-boots-on-the-ground policy and also declined to work with the FSA units backed by Ankara. Ankara, on the other hand, points out that the PYD is the Syria branch (or “cousin” as the former CIA chief David Petraeus says) of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey for more than three decades in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
Underlining that the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Erdoğan told Trump on the phone on Feb. 8 that it was not a good idea to side with one terrorist organization against another one, since it could have bitter consequences. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 18 in Munich that Turkey had no intention of staying in Syria once the civil war is over, but the PYD has already announced that it was intent on keeping the territories it holds for an autonomous Kurdish region, despite the fact that most of the area they control thanks to U.S. air power is actually ethnically Arab territory.
“There should only be Syrians in Syria” in a Syria that represents all Syrians, Yıldırım told reporters on Feb. 22.
According to Işık, the Americans are evaluating now whether to abandon the PYD as a partner and take the FSA and other Arab rebel forces with full military support from Turkey against ISIL. It was Işık who told the Hürriyet Daily News last week that it was thanks to the Euphrates Shield operation into Syria that the Turkish government was able to get its voice heard and also prevented the PYD from filling the areas cleared from ISIL by taking advantage of the power vacuum.
And in the meantime, Turkey is trying to consolidate its front against the PKK by siding with the Iraqi Kurds, since taking Mosul from ISIL is another strategic target. Following a meeting in Munich on Feb. 19 during the security conferences, Yıldırım is expected to again meet with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in Ankara on Feb. 26.
And it is not only he who is trying to influence Trump’s decision – perhaps not immediately – after the Feb. 28 deadline. The main reason why the pace of the Geneva talks were not promising on Feb. 23 was because everyone wants to hear the call from the White House. The same goes for the Russians, since Moscow’s influence on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is vital for a lasting solution in Syria.