Vital questions lingering ahead of Turkey's Syria move
The last 48 hours have marked another very important milestone in the nine-year-long Syria crisis. U.S. President Donald Trump has announced that he issued a firm decision for the return of all troops in Syria as he informed that Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria after a phone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Oct 6.
It seems the two leaders have revisited an unimplemented deal they reached late 2018 which was stipulating that Turkey takes care of the remnants of ISIL in Syria after the complete withdrawal of the U.S. troops.
As known, the deal could not be enforced because of a strong internal pressure on Trump on the grounds that the move would mean abandoning the Syrian Kurds who helped the U.S. in defeating ISIL. Second, many have argued that the Turkish move would jeopardize the security of the Kurds in the east of River Euphrates. Finally, an untimely withdrawal would ease the conditions for the resurrection of ISIL.
Important developments happened there since then. The fight against ISIL was 100 percent won, as suggested by Trump on Oct 7.
Second, many senior officials, including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, special anti-ISIL envoy Brett McGurk, and more importantly John Bolton as the National Security Council advisor, have lost their positions to figures who would less likely object to Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
Having said that, there is growing opposition to Trump on Syria by his Republican fellows at Congress. There is news that one of the closest allies of Trump, Lindsey Graham, is leading a bipartisan effort in Congress to sanction Turkey if it penetrates Syria. It is clear that Trump sought to defuse the concerns of the congressmen by issuing a new and strong warning against Turkey should its army do “anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
Whether Trump will be able to stand tall against all these internal attempts to reverse his decision will be an important question to observe in the coming days. In relation to this, it’s also important whether it will be a full withdrawal or the relocation of the U.S. troops.
In the case of the former, the pace of the withdrawal will need to be observed.
Many of the remaining questions are about the modalities about the Turkish military’s operation. The Turkish officials have so far remained tight-lipped over the technical details of potential operation and left the objective, scope and duration of it in the dark.
News reports suggest that the operation will likely start from between Tel Abyad and Ras el-Ayn provinces of northeastern Syria to create a 30-kilometer-deep safe zone. The creation of other pockets will follow until the security of the entire borderline will be reassured, reports argue. The length of the operation is hard to estimate, but considering that the concerned borderline is around 600 kilometers, it won’t be wrong to suggest that it would be quite excessive.
Other questions concern the reaction of the YPG against the Turkish military move. Spokespersons of the group hint they will establish a defense line inside Syria in order to defend the territories they control. Although well-equipped and well-trained by the U.S. since 2015, experts believe the YPG groups won’t be able to resist for a long time against Turkey’s strong army. Some elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has now turned into a sort of “national army,” will be used as advance forces as was the case during Turkey’s two previous cross-border operations.
A recent statement by Pentagon stressed that the U.S. military has shut Turkey off from the air space in northeastern Syria, meaning the Turkish jets won’t be flying over the areas where the ground forces are believed to conduct the operation. Turkey would still hope to use its armed drones, if not aircrafts, for the efficiency of the operation which will take place on flat terrain, making conditions difficult for the YPG.
Another important task Turkey will have to deal with in line with the Erdoğan-Trump deal is the imprisoned members of ISIL and their family members. Figures on jailed ISIL members vary from 1,000 to 2,000, while around 60,000 ISIL family members are kept in camps in northeastern Syria. Erdoğan announced that Turkish and American militaries were in efforts on how to deal with them after the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
However, for many in Ankara, this remains to be one of the most concerning issues with no easy solutions. Opposition parties accuse the government of falling into a trap by the U.S. and Russia as Turkey will now have to deal with radical jihadist terrorists in the east of Euphrates and the northwestern province of Idlib. To what extent Turkey will be able to address the problems stemming from the presence of these radical terrorists just across its border will need to be seen in the coming period.
Turkey’s looming incursion into Syria accompanied by the U.S. withdrawal from this country will surely open a new chapter on the nearly a decade-old Syrian turmoil, but with questions and concerns more tough than ever.