Turkey and the fog of war in Syria

Turkey and the fog of war in Syria

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is confident that the Turkish military and its allies in Syria have the capacity to take the town of Al Bab - a stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - and move on to Manbij to expel fighters attached to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Statements from the Turkish General Staff also indicate that the “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria against ISIL and the Peoples Defense Forces (YPG), the military wing of the PYD, is making progress. In a recent statement it said PYD/YPG targets in northern Syria were hit, “killing 100 terrorists.” 

International reports regarding developments in northern Syria, which are not always in line with statements issued by Ankara, however, are causing confusion in minds. What is clear is that Al Bab has not been taken yet by the Turkish supported Free Syrian Army (FSA). It is also not clear how Turkey plans to move on Manbij.  Should it do so, it is will come up against the U.S. 

Washington insists that it is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which it supports – that are in Manbij. It maintains that this force is not just made up of Kurdish fighters but also includes Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen, and even Armenian and Circassian fighters. 

As this confusion was reigning, we learned from Hürriyet reporter Sevil Erkuş a few days ago that the FSA’s move on Al Bab has slowed down because Turkish jets, which have been providing air support to the FSA, have not been able to fly in Syrian airspace since Oct. 22. 

The reason is reportedly a warning from the Syrian regime, which said that after Turkish jets bombed YPG targets in Syria that any Turkish jet entering its airspace would be shot down. It is also noteworthy that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came out, after Turkey bombed YPG targets, to say Moscow was deeply concerned over this development.

It is obvious that the Syrian regime cannot use its Russia-provided and Russia-manned radar capabilities against Turkish jets without Moscow’s approval. It seems that Russia also does not want to see Turkish jets in Syrian airspace, despite its recent reconciliation with Ankara, even if it is not coming out to say this openly.

In the confusing Syrian tableau, Russia and the PYD are also nominal allies. Moscow may be signaling to Ankara in this roundabout way that Al Bab is out of bounds for Turkey. 

Erdoğan and his supporters have been making a big deal over Turkey’s reconciliation with Russia, and signaling that this can provide benefits for Turkey in Syria, especially against the intentions of the U.S. Despite protests from Ankara, Washington continues to insist on maintaining its alliance with the PYD. 

However, reports of Turkey’s inability to fly its jets in Syrian airspace – which have also featured in the Russian media - raise questions as to how reliable Russia is for Turkey in Syria. Ankara and Moscow may have reconciled but they remain on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to the Syrian conflict.

If Turkey is unable to do much in the end with regard to Al Bab, Manbij and the PYD in Syria because of U.S. and Russian opposition, this will be a serious embarrassment for Erdoğan. Questions as to why Ankara has failed to come up with coherent and workable policies regarding Syria and Iraq will inevitably surface again. 

If, on the other hand, Erdoğan’s overly confident remarks about the progress of the Euphrates Shield operation and the FSA’s plans in northern Syria are meant merely for domestic consumption - in order to shore up his political support base at home - this will only lead Ankara into new dead ends in the region.

Put another way, once the fog of war starts lifting – especially after the looming operation to liberate Raqqa, ISIL’s “capital” – we may be faced with a situation where Turkey is alone and unable to do much, because it misread the situation on the ground and confused domestic and foreign policy priorities once again.