Turkey’s high stakes in post-ISIL Syria

Turkey’s high stakes in post-ISIL Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been a continuing nightmare since 2014, is now finally on the road to perdition.

Of course, as the common enemy is now in retreat, the rivalries among the factions fighting on the ground have begun to surface. What is more worrying is the fact that because none of the actors seem to have a definite end-game, particularly regarding a post-ISIL Syria, it won’t be easy to reconcile their conflicting interests.

The ambiguous stance of the U.S. throughout the Qatar crisis has reflected a clash of perspectives within the administration regarding the Middle East. A cursory glance at the contradictory remarks of President Donald Trump and his men reveals that it is not easy to deduce whether the U.S. wishes to maintain its military presence once Syria is cleaned of ISIL, what kind of a political structure is being envisioned, and more importantly, how much is the administration willing to commit in order to achieve its goals.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, Iran and Russia have cooperated in order to keep the regime in power. 

In contrast, Turkey’s goals and threat perceptions have changed throughout the course of the war. Today, Ankara’s main goal is to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish entity along its borders or, at the very least, to limit the areas controlled by the Kurds.

Recently, some media outlets have reported that Turkey had been in talks with Russia to launch a second cross-border operation into Syria that would encompass Tel Abyad, the Menagh Air Base and Afrin.

Turkey has long failed to convince the U.S. to end its cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, which it sees as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Ankara is concerned that Trump’s decision to directly arm the YPG as well as the recent military accomplishments of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is the YPG, might pave the way for Syrian Kurds to become a legitimate actor that will have a say in Syria’s political future.

In this respect, Turkey is once again approaching Russia to fulfil demands that were not met by Washington. 

Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed, as part of the Astana talks, to establish four “de-conflict” zones, one of which is Idlib. The success of such zones would also play a significant role in lightening some of Turkey’s burden in terms of refugees.

The most efficient path to Idlib would pass through Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurds under Russian patronage. A recent visit by Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy in the fight against
ISIL, to Ankara suggests that the U.S. might be looking for ways to prevent a possible clash between Turkey and Kurds in Afrin given that such a fight would have negative repercussions for the battle for Raqqa.

In the past, Turkey and the Kurds have managed to cooperate - albeit implicitly - such as in the moving of the Shrine of Süleyman Şah away from ISIL-held territory.

However, today, Ankara is dead set against a Kurdish corridor running the length of its southern border all the way to the Mediterranean.

There are two important points here to consider: one is the question of how far Russia will permit the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) to advance, given that the FSA is opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The second is that Russia’s relations with the Kurds are no less warm than U.S.-Kurdish relations. After all, Russia does not view the PKK as a terrorist group, continues to host an office for the YPG’s political wing and has insisted on Syrian Kurds to be invited to the Geneva talks on Syria.

While details of negotiations between Ankara and Moscow regarding a cross-border operation are yet to be disclosed, drawing a NATO member to its side would certainly have a strategic value for Russia.

Regardless, the cost of a possible military operation, the exit strategy, as well as shifting alliances in the field all warrant careful consideration by decision-makers in Ankara, so as to avoid being left out in the cold.