Syria and conflicting priorities
Since the establishment of de-conflict zones in Syria by Russia, Iran and Turkey as part of efforts in the Kazakh capital Astana to boost the Geneva peace talks, the war in the country has entered a new phase.
Actors, directly or indirectly engaged in the field, have been adapting their strategic objectives to changing circumstances and new challenges ahead. Russia and Iran are intent on maintaining their gains in Syria. Even though the United States claims that its permanent military presence in Syria is designed to prevent a return of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its long-term goal is to contain Iran.
For Turkey, the primary threat is the Kurds on its borders whose power has grown with U.S. support. Accordingly, Ankara’s main aim is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish corridor running all the way from Iraq to the Mediterranean.
It was due to the American insistence on pursuing cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), that Ankara aligned with Russia and Iran, putting its rhetoric against President Bashar al-Assad on the back burner. But nowadays we see the return of that rhetoric, strangely at a time when cooperation is so much needed for “Operation Olive Branch,” Turkey’s cross-border operation in the Afrin district in Syria’s northwest.
Obviously, declarations against al-Assad are not helping Turkey’s continuing military operations in Syria – something that was evident last week when groups reportedly tied to Syria’s army or Iran stopped a Turkish convoy near Idlib.
Russia, which gave Ankara a green light for the Afrin operation, does not share Turkey’s fears about the Kurds. Instead, there is speculation that it assented to the operation in exchange for Turkey ceding any captured territories to regime forces.
Whatever the case, even if Turkey does begin following its strategy of regime change once more, it will be impossible to achieve this with Russia and Iran.
And then there’s Turkish-U.S. relations, in which the unsurmountable tension seriously threatens the alliance ties. It’s true that Washington has not kept its promises to Ankara on Syria. The Euphrates Shield Operation was launched to prevent the Syrian Kurds from uniting their cantons, even after the U.S. promised that they would not proceed west of the Euphrates River. The arming of Kurds within the SDF against ISIL, together with the recent decision to form a 30,000-strong border force with the Kurds, indicates that the U.S. has long-term plans for cooperation with Syria’s Kurds. Considering Washington’s political and military investments in the Kurds in recent years, it is not realistic to expect that the U.S. will end such support. At the same time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement that the next stop is Manbij, where U.S. troops are stationed, raises the prospect of a clash between Turkish and U.S. forces, while bringing to an end Washington’s policies of playing both sides.
With anti-Americanism at its peak in Turkey, the loss of confidence between the countries also harms NATO – just as Russia wants. Indeed, calls to close Adana’s İncirlik Air Base to the U.S. are again on the agenda.
Washington could reduce the tension by taking steps to prevent conflict in the field and assuage Ankara’s concerns. On this, one can consider it a good sign that the channels of dialogue are still open between the two countries. As evidenced by a recent article on the matter by former U.S. Envoy to Ankara James Jeffrey and David Pollock in Foreign Policy, one of the options includes weaning the Syrian Kurds off the PKK and pushing them toward a formula for compromise with Ankara.
“Turkey’s struggle is not with Syrian Kurds, but with armed terror organizations,” said President Erdoğan during his recent visit to Vatican, stressing Turkey’s right of self-defense against terrorism in his assessment of the Afrin operation. Ankara expects concrete reassurances other than mere words in safeguarding its national security interests.
Still, regarding tangled alliances in Syria, Turkey would benefit from developing strategies that accord with its aims and, more importantly, don’t conflict with another.