Turkey’s ‘Trump Card’ in Syria

Turkey’s ‘Trump Card’ in Syria

Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria has finally attained its overstretched and prolonged objectives. After six months, it is now time to declare victory. Although the troops are unlikely to be brought home immediately, this is an option to be seriously considered. 

Overall, the operation has not been easy. At the outset Turkey could not clearly identify the military strategic plan or political objectives of the operation. Apparently the intention was to clear the Turkish-Syrian border of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and ensure full control without any breaks. This would also help the Turkish government resettle a number of Syrian refugees into the cleared and secured territory. 

However, Turkey soon realized that the border would not be “secure enough” unless the operation expanded further south to Al-Bab. After all, Al-Bab was one of the major strongholds of ISIL in Syria and any fight against terrorism in Syria could not omit this important town.

Today, elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), enhanced by the contribution of some other Syrian armed opposition groups, has established control over a significant part of Al-Bab. The Turkish Armed Forces enabled this to happen through intensive military and logistical support for those opposition forces led by the FSA, at the cost of 67 Turkish soldiers being killed. 

U.S. President Donald Trump recently asked his military staff to prepare a plan for establishing safe zones in Syria. With Trump’s concept of safe zones remaining ambiguous, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said the plan would be ready by the end of February. He also underlined that the plan would not be entirely military, but rather “political-military.”

The concept of “safe zones” is pretty clear for Turkey. At the end of the Euphrates Shield operation, the Syrian opposition supported by Turkey has already established control over a territory of more than 2,000 square kilometers. This area, particularly Jarablus and its surroundings, has become a new resettlement area for more than 40,000 Syrian refugees already. 

Turkey has undertaken re-construction and rehabilitation efforts to provide sustainability for those Syrian families in their new living environment. Shelter, health, education and other daily subsistence requirements are provided.

Turkey’s defined target for the safe zone to be created in Syria covers an area of around 5,000 square kilometers. To achieve this, many argue that Turkey’s military operations should now change direction toward the east and target Raqqa. 

It goes without saying that Raqqa would be a much harder an undertaking than Al-Bab. In fact, talks between the Turkish-U.S. military top brass have focused on the tactical and logistical possibilities of such an operation on many occasions in the past. 

The U.S. may have calculated that its support for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) for the success of the Raqqa operation would be enough. Turkey, however, says its experience in the Al-Bab operation has proven successful and the Syrian opposition forces supported by Turkey are potentially able to carry out an operation to take Raqqa. 

If the U.S. military high command works on a “political-military plan” with a view to securing a larger safe zone to the north and west of the Euphrates, Turkey and the U.S. will be on the same page and should coordinate their moves. 

Turkey’s advantage is the successful Euphrates Shield operation with its victory in Al-Bab. It is not only the military aspect, the “political-military” dimension of Turkey’s operation has also been a success. 

A safe zone would be an area where Syrians can live in their homeland without any security risks. Jarablus has already become such a haven, and similar conditions could be expanded to the secured districts of Al-Bab. 

Turkey’s success in Al-Bab is its “trump card” in emphasizing that such safe areas can be established, re-constructed and rehabilitated. U.S. President Trump’s military staff should not fail to take it as a serious model. 

For Ankara, rebuilding and ensuring the sustainability of a safe zone is important for humanitarian purposes. But unless a crystal clear strategy enriched with tactical and strategic military planning is on the table, Turkey could end up losing its “trump card.”