The need for a sharper shift
This must have been really beyond anyone’s imagination. The coup attempt on July 15 was first suppressed within Turkey in just two days. The country immediately circled the wagons. The spirit of unity penetrated into the politics, media and society.
Moreover, the coup attempt was suppressed not only inside the country, but also in the international arena in less than two months. Last week, President Tayyip Erdoğan, attending the G-20 summit in China, eliminated the image of weakness and projected strength. By holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of the United States, Russia and Europe, he reinforced this perception.
Furthermore, he made some “megahits” by signing major energy and trade deals with China and Russia. He paved the way for the building of the third nuclear reactor in Turkey to be undertaken by China and sped up the construction of the Turkish Stream in collaboration with Russia. Along the same lines, progress was also made last week in relations with the European Union following a period of tension since July 15. The deadlock in the negotiations regarding the visa exemption of the Turkish citizens was also overcome.
Ankara made another regional and actually international step just 10 days before the G-20 summit. It took the region between Azaz and Jarablus along its border under its control in just two weeks by intervening in northern Syria. In this way it blocked – for now – the plans of the Kurdish forces to unify their cantons in the northern part of the country. Hence Turkey has become an active player in the Syrian war.
This has also refreshed and bolstered the image of Turkey and its military which had been greatly damaged by the coup attempt. The Turkish army, which was expected to weaken, has contrastingly made a strong appearance.
One of the main factors which paved the way for Turkey’s operation was that Erdoğan normalized Turkey’s relations with Russia right after July 15, meeting his Russian counterpart in St. Petersburg. Simultaneously improving dialogue with Iran has also played a major role.
Yet this is not the whole picture. Ankara was able to realize this operation since it has interpreted the developments on the ground correctly and decided to take the initiative to change the course of events. Moreover, it did this by meeting both the U.S. and Russia halfway.
The midpoint achieved with the U.S. is clear as crystal. Ankara has accepted the presence of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) on the eastern shore of the Euphrates, whereas the U.S. has promised that the Kurdish forces will withdraw from the west of the river to the east. Needless to say, Washington is also more than happy that a national army is fighting ISIL.
The agreement reached directly with Russia and Iran and, via them, indirectly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is also more or less clear. This trio has given the green light to Turkey not for mercy’s sake. First of all, they are glad that Kurdish autonomy is being prevented in northern Syria. But still, there are concessions Turkey has to make.
Apparently, Russia expects Turkey to confine its operation to northern Syria since it would put pressure on al-Assad if the operation extended to the south. The region Putin has reservations about includes not only Aleppo and its surroundings, but also Raqqa, ISIL’s capital in Syria. After all, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared two days ago that they are “worried about the incursion of Turkish soldiers and Ankara-backed Syrian opposition groups further to the south on Syrian soil.”
Besides, Moscow expects Ankara to slowly withdraw its support for the opposition groups in and around Aleppo. Last but not least, Ankara has obviously taken “the Assad question” off its agenda.
Yet Turkey faces the “stop warning” whenever it steps beyond those midpoints achieved with the U.S. and Russia. Washington has sounded the warning in relation to the PYD/YPG. As long as the Kurdish forces don’t move to the east of the Euphrates, Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) will clash with them. However, Washington has made it more than clear that it won’t stand behind Turkey if it fights groups other than ISIL.
In addition, the U.S. is turning down Turkey’s request for the foundation of a safe zone or no-fly zone in northern Syria since it doesn’t want to take on a greater military burden. Yet more importantly, it doesn’t want Turkey to become permanent in this region and thereby change the rules of the game according to its taste.
In short, Ankara won’t get the green light if it fails to confine its target list to ISIL.
Russia also shifts to “failure mode” when Turkey goes beyond the midpoint. First of all, the backbone of Turkey’s operation is composed of the FSA which has been fighting against al-Assad since the beginning of the war and shot by Russian jets! That Moscow and Tehran are shutting their eyes to this situation at this moment doesn’t mean that they won’t raise their voice in the event of a further incursion to the south.
In this context, in case Ankara aims to stay in Syria for a longer term and extend the operation, it will have to veer more sharply toward either the U.S. or Russia if it wants to pull through with minimum damage and preserve the momentum it has gained since July 15.