Time for a reality check in Syria
Two processes are ongoing in Syria: First, Turkey and the United States are in talks for setting up a buffer zone in northwest Syria. Second, there are developments in the Idlib province of Syria, once declared a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Both are very sensitive issues and need to be handled in a very careful manner as the stakes are getting higher for Turkey.
Turkey and the U.S. have recently announced the beginning of efforts for setting up what they call a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border although they are far from being able to agree on the modalities.
This much-anticipated step could be taken only after Turkey has openly warned the U.S. that it won’t hesitate to conduct an incursion into northwestern Syria should its NATO ally does not fulfill its promise on the safe zone.
This alone says that the main drive behind the U.S. consent on this move is to avoid a new military operation by the Turkish Armed Forces against the YPG across its border.
Many in Ankara suggest that the U.S. won’t be in a hurry to accomplish negotiations for the safe zone and will extend them over a period of time. That was why Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu urged Turkey not to tolerate any actions by the U.S. for the postponement of the process just like it did with the Manbij deal in June 2018.
Besides, the risks of setting up such a security mechanism are poorly calculated in the Turkish capital. It’s believed the move will further provide legitimacy to the YPG in Syria under the protection of the U.S. with concerns that it could jeopardize the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria in the long run.
On western Syria, things are more urgent. The Syrian army has intensified its military operations inside the Idlib province in recent weeks simultaneously with the Turkish-American talks on the safe zone.
Heavily backed by the Russian air forces, the Syrian army penetrates the province at the expense of jeopardizing the security of the Turkish observations posts. An aerial attack early Aug 19 on a Turkish convoy bound for Morek region of the Idlib province where Turkey’s No. 9 Observation Post is located has been interpreted as a move that has broken the Turkish-Russian memorandum on the enclave.
There are serious but unconfirmed reports that the attack was carried out by the Russian air forces.
The Russian part, however, indirectly blames Turkey for the current situation in the enclave. Putin, at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, has said that 50 percent of the province was under the control of jihadist terrorists last year, but this figure has jumped to 90 percent because Turkey failed to kick these groups away from the province.
He also lent support to the military operations by the Syrian army and said Russia will continue to back the anti-terror struggle in the war-torn country.
At the point we have arrived, Turkey’s No. 9 Observation Post is fully encircled with Syrian forces and the No. 8 Observation Post seems to be in the pipeline. The objective of this move is to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Idlib although the Turkish government has reiterated that its deployment will not be pulled back.
All these developments indicate the death of the Sochi memorandum that was agreed to in September 2018 on Idlib. There is a new reality and it says that the Syrian-Russian duo will not cease their anti-terror operation in the enclave regardless of Turkey’s concerns over a humanitarian tragedy and a new refugee influx.
This new reality puts the safety of the Turkish troops into danger as the Syrian regime forces come within an inch of the Turkish observation post in Morek region of Idlib. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that all these were posing a threat to Turkey’s national security. Days ahead will show to what extent Putin will show understanding to the Turkish concerns although many suggest in Ankara that operations against the terrorists will not be suspended.
Dealing with two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, at the same time in the Syrian context is not an easy task and requires a meticulous diplomatic art. In the absence of this competence, Turkey seems to be squeezed between these two powers. That’s why, before anything else, Turkey needs a reality check on what’s going on in the Syrian theater and to re-calibrate its policy accordingly.