What kind of success did Turkey achieve in Syria?
Hours before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrival in Ankara on the evening of March 29, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on NTV that Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation on Syria soil had been completed.
Yıldırım had just stepped out of a National Security Board (MGK) meeting chaired by President Tayyip Erdoğan, with the board’s press release subsequently saying the operation had been “successfully completed.”
Just four weeks ago on March 2, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who conducted a joint press conference with Tillerson on March 30, said the next target of the Turkish army in Syria, after the capture of al-Bab from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, would be Manbij and then Raqqa, pending an agreement with the United States.
Manbij had already been taken from ISIL on Aug. 12, 2016, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the help of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), just 12 days before the Turkish military launched the Euphrates Shield. But Turkey has been objecting to the fact that the main body of the SDF was the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syria extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S.
In his March 2 statement, Çavuşoğlu said that when the Turkish army (together with the rebel Free Syria Army - FSA) militia marches on Manbij, they would hit YPG militants in the town if they came across any of them.
That statement accelerated the unfolding of developments. The next day, on March 3, Russia, which has been helping the Turkish army in Syria by coordinating efforts with Syrian army forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad against ISIL, said that from that day on, the YPG would transfer all positions in and around Manbij to the Syrian regime under the monitoring of Russian special forces. That was a clear sign from Russia after the U.S. that a Turkish operation on Manbij would not be welcomed.
Actually, that was the day the military part of the Euphrates Shield effectively came to an end, but both Erdoğan and Çavuşoğlu were trying hard to convince the Americans to carry out the Raqqa operation against ISIL together if the Americans abandoned the YPG as a partner. Americans did not and the Russians also demonstrated that the joint aim now was ISIL and that, regardless of how justified Turkish objections are that it is wrong to fight a terrorist group with the help of another, this was the time to focus on ISIL. Russian special forces also posed for the cameras with YPG badges, just like the Americans did a year ago.
“This is not a conventional war,” says military analyst Nihat Ali Özcan. “You can reach your political targets even without achieving your original military ones.” That is in reference to the statement of Yıldırım when he said some 2,000 square kilometers were cleared of ISIL whereas the original goal was ten times that. That was secured with the lives of 67 Turkish soldiers, some 600 FSA militia and the killing of some 3,000 ISIL militants, according to Turkish official figures.
Turkish officials say that the military’s function has now been transformed to ensure the return of Syrians from refugee camps in Turkey to towns like Jarablus, al-Bab and Dabiq and provide their basic needs to start a new life there.
It is true that thanks to the 216-day Euphrates Shield Operation, Turkey returned to the Syria table, but it failed to achieve its main political goal of convincing the Americans and Russians to abandon the YPG. On the other hand, the Americans have started to rule out the possibility of a Kurdish federation in a future Syria as the YPG has started to talk about it more and more, which annoys not only Turkey, but also Iran, Iraq and Syria.
What is understood from the Tillerson-Çavuşoğlu press conference was that the two NATO allies agree to disagree on the YPG and also on the need to try to listen to each other more – something that seems more likely after the Turkish referendum on a presidential system on April 16.
With the announcement of the end of Turkish military offensive on Syrian soil, another chapter has closed in Turkey’s six-year-old Syrian timeline, although it has perhaps had more downs than ups so far.