Tough questions of the new era in Syria
Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s dramatic decision last week to “pull out” from Syria, we have entered an “open-ended” process in the country where all dynamics have been upended and power balances will be reformatted. The new period brings with it at this stage several unknowns and critical challenges.
Turkey has emerged as the winner in terms of catering to its fundamental concern in Syria.
Ever since Bashar al-Assad pulled out in 2012 from the north of Syria, leaving it to YPG forces that have endorsed the PKK line, Ankara was feeling a deep anxiety of an autonomous Kurdish administrative region that could take shape along its border under the patronage of the U.S.
The U.S.’s withdrawal of support from the PYD/YPG means a huge relief in Ankara. This outcome has strengthened both Turkey’s position in the Syrian crisis as well as its regional position.
Yet these gains brought with it a responsibility on the shoulders of Turkey that entails important risks that will put Turkey at the forefront of the fight against ISIL.
We might predict that just as with the case in Afrin against ISIL, Turkey will operate to a great degree over the FSA and the military structures made up of local tribes in the region.
Then again, at the final analysis, the Turkish armed forces will play a key role in the field. The Turkish military’s operations in Syria and Iraq were in general undertaken until recently in regions adjacent or close to the border.
Yet this time there might be an issue of “depth,” because at the current stage, ISIL is effective in an area south of Euphrates’ basin near the Iraqi border.
For example, the Hajin region, which is adjacent to the Iraqi border and where bloody clashes have taken place lately, is 300 kilometers from the Akçakale border gate.
Whether there will appear a need for the Turkish military to go that deep is one of the most important questions of the days ahead.
But before the issue of “depth,” we need to look at the answer of another question.
We do not know what the fate of the SDF, whose backbone is made up of the PYD/YPG, will be in the wake of the U.S. pullout.
Having lost the U.S.’s support the probability of the PYD/YPG reaching an agreement with the Assad regime and Russia endorsing a supportive stance should not be underestimated. Let’s not forget that one of the factors that kept forces loyal to Assad from passing to the east of Euphrates was U.S. support to the PYD/YPG.
With U.S. deterrence leaving the scene, an important hurdle in front of the Assad regime crossing the east of Euphrates will be eliminated.
In addition, which side the Arab elements within the SDF will go with is another substantial question.
In order to fully analyze the risks in front of Turkey, the question on to what degree the Assad regime could spread its sovereignty area to the Euphrates’ east and northeast needs to be clarified.
These and similar questions sets the consultations among Turkey, Russia and Iran, which have forces on the ground, on a very critical framework.
These three countries have become defining actors in the management of the Syrian crisis with the Astana process that they have started in 2017. In fact, the Astana mechanism has become more important than the Geneva-based U.N. peace process.
Despite the difference of views among each other, relying on a framework of common interest, Astana’s partners have acted relatively in coordination and harmony to this day, and thanks to that they exerted their influence.
Whether these three countries will show the same cooperative approach from now on is the most crucial issue of the Syrian equation.
At this stage, a sensitive balancing act is on the agenda as far as Turkey is concerned.
As conflicting sides in Syria, Turkey and the U.S. were until last week at logger heads.
The fact that the U.S. pulls out of Syria and seeks cooperation with Turkey seems to have opened the way for a surprise cooperation between the two countries.
The challenge here as far as Turkey is concerned is how it will conduct the cooperation that is about to start with the U.S. on Syria without antagonizing its Astana partners.
At any rate, considering its influence over the Assad regime, we can say it from today that Russia’s role will be strengthened and the dialogue between Ankara and Moscow will be the defining axis in the shaping of the new Syria.