Turkey and the US: Last chance in Syria

Turkey and the US: Last chance in Syria

The first 24 hours of the partial ceasefire secured in Syria seemed to cause some cautious optimism for the implementation of the U.S.-Russia agreement, billed as “the last chance” for keeping the war-torn country united.

There were no civilian casualties on the first day of the truce, while Turkish aid trucks crossed the Syrian border on Sept. 13 to deliver a humanitarian supply to civilians in Aleppo and nearby regions, in line with the agreement. Syrian warplanes have not been visible flying over territories under the control of opposition forces - an indication that the Bashar al-Assad regime intends to continue to be part of the deal. 

However, it is still very early to talk about the success of the agreement, as we still need time to observe full compliance with the ceasefire after the first 48 hours.

Given the deep mistrust between the regime and opposition forces, as well as between the U.S. and Russia, one should probably agree with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of the deal as the “last chance for a united Syria.”

That follows a rather pessimistic forecast by the CIA’s John Brennan, who said last week: “I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction … I question whether we will see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly.”

Brennan’s words sparked fresh questions about whether Washington was changing its line for redrawing the borders in the Middle East, as many suspect in Ankara, for the creation of a Kurdish autonomous entity in Syria. Although U.S. officials have underlined that their policy was to keep both countries united, these statements need to be put into effect through concrete moves in a bid to convince Ankara and other regional capitals.

That’s why Turkey’s ongoing operation into northern Syria gained more importance after the brokered deal. In the third week of the Euphrates Shield Operation, Turkish forces on the ground coordinated well with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in its efforts to clear its borders of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists. The Turkish military’s move also sent a direct message to Syrian Kurdish groups, particularly the Democratic Union Party (PYD), that it will not allow its militias to cross west of the Euphrates River.

It is no secret that Turkey and the U.S. are still at odds over a number of issues concerning the PYD’s future role in the anti-ISIL fight. But this is not the time for both allies to waste their energy on desperately trying to convince each other how to regard this group, because the truce deal offers an important window of opportunity for all sides. If U.S. and Russia can establish their Joint Implementation Center to coordinate the fighting against ISIL and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front), Turkey will have a lot to contribute to this effort. The FSA and the PYD could also be active on the ground as part of an expanded anti-ISIL mission with a clear mandate for both groups. 

In sum, Turkey and the U.S. need to find a way to turn this mess into a new opportunity to both fight against jihadists and overcome their differences. As Kerry said, this is the last chance.