Do we know the full truth about the Euphrates Shield?
Daily Hürriyet’s veteran diplomatic correspondent, Uğur Ergan, reported on Monday that Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in Northern Syria, launched on Aug. 24 against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) – which Ankara says is a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – has slowed down.
Using background information from official sources, Ergan cited three reasons for this: The strong resistance by ISIL in the town of al-Bab, the time needed to prepare to break this resistance and the recent abduction of two Turkish soldiers by ISIL.
An immediate question that springs to mind – especially in the wake of recent statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which clearly suggested that the capture of al-Bab is only days away – is why these very likely contingencies were not factored into the planning of the operation.
Another question that crops up is whether the Turkish-trained Free Syria Army (FSA), which provides the main component of the Euphrates Shield, is up to the task. The FSA has proved to be ineffective in the past, and it seems that it may still not be up to scratch when it comes to serious fighting.
Yet another question is why the abduction of two soldiers by ISIL – sad as it is – can stall a major operation, as it has been billed to date by the government, and whether this does not send a message to ISIL to try and abduct more soldiers, given the effect this will have on the Turkish military.
There are a lot of gaps regarding the operation despite the great hope placed on this by the government, and Ergan’s report clearly highlights this. But there is another and more crucial question that Ergan’s sources are clearly shying away from.
Could it be that the Euphrates Shield has reached the limit that will be allowed by Damascus and its main backer, Moscow? This question is especially crucial in light of the recent aerial attack against Turkish forces stationed near al-Bab, for which the Turkish military blamed the Syrian regime.
Russia denies that it or the regime was behind this attack, but the Turkish Armed Forces have not retracted their original statement. As for the government, it has been trying to downplay the attack. This is noteworthy given the attempt by Ankara to cozy up to Moscow in order to counterbalance its deteriorating ties with its Western allies.
Put mildly, that attack was a serious blow and embarrassment to Ankara. That strike also made it risky for the Turkish Air Force to fly missions in support of Turkish forces and their FSA vanguard in the region.
The likely Russian thinking in this regard is simple to understand. Al-Bab is a gateway to Aleppo, where Russia and Syria are on the verge of defeating the FSA and radical Islamic elements fighting alongside them. Moscow clearly does not want to see a Turkish-supported FSA presence take control of that town.
Erdoğan’s promise was also to move on to Manbij, currently held by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), once al-Bab was captured, in order to rid it of YPG fighters operating under the SDF umbrella. Washington, however, does not want to see that happen.
The way things are stacked in northern Syria presently, it appears Erdoğan will be unable to fulfill this promise either.
So is it all rhetoric and nothing else we have been hearing from Erdoğan and other members of the government about the great successes being secured by the Euphrates Shield? Erdoğan’s statement last week that the Euphrates Shield aimed to topple Bashar al-Assad, and his retraction of this statement a few days later after signs of disapproval from Moscow, has only added to the confusion.
In other words, are there developments on the ground that are being withheld from the Turkish public? These questions will be increasingly asked in the coming period. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Syria policy continues to give the impression of being an intractable debacle.