This article was published in Ahval News on August 5, 2019.
Turkey hones in on military operation east of Euphrates river
The region east of the River Euphrates in northern Syria has always been on Turkey’ s agenda, but because of more pressing domestic and foreign policy issues, it has not been at the forefront of public debate for several months. But the issue has now become an urgent one after protracted negotiations with the United States over setting up a safe zone in the area along the Turkish border have led nowhere. The attitude displayed so far by the United States is not promising.
As a reaction to the U.S. delaying tactics, Turkey is massing large numbers of troops along the border, especially between the Turkish town of Suruç, opposite the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab (which Kurds call Kobani), and Akçakale (facing the Syrian town of Tel Abyad). The distance between the two Turkish towns is around 70 km. If Turkey does eventually carry out the cross-border military operation that it has talked about for more than two years, it will probably take place in this area. It would aim to drive a wedge between the areas east and west of Kobane, and interrupt the continuity of the Kurdish-controlled belt in Syria.
The concentration of Turkish troops is almost an army-corps size and includes two armoured brigades, two mechanised brigades and two commando brigades. On the Syrian side of the border there is nothing that can militarily match such a big concentration of troops, except the U.S. Air Force. Whether two NATO allies will engage in a military confrontation is as yet unclear. Both Turkey and the United State are aware that if that happens, it will be the end of many things.
Hopes rose when veteran diplomat James Jeffrey was appointed the U.S. special representative for Syria in August last year. Jeffrey served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, then Iraq and knows the region very well.
Turkish and U.S. interests in Syria, especially in the north of Syria, are far from a bridgeable distance and on the specific issue of setting up safe zones in this region, their interests are diametrically opposed. The United States wants to set up such zones mainly to protect the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Turkish army. Many U.S. top officials have voiced concerns on the record about the security of the Kurds in general, but more specifically of the YPG. Turkey insistently underlines that it has no conflict with the Kurds in general – its target is YPG, which has close links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation that Turkey has been fighting for more than three decades.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in January this year, has said that the president affirmed “the importance of ensuring that the Turks do not slaughter the Kurds”.
Trump was no less determined when he tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds”. U.S. policy has remained more or less the same since these statements were made eight months ago. Several meetings have been held between military delegations of both countries, but progress has been modest.
The United States continues to provide massive support to the YPG in the form of equipment, arms ammunition and training. This support is aimed at using the Kurds both as leverage to pressure the Syrian government during the constitutional process and for a longer-term goal of promoting a Kurdish entity in the region. Turkey is also in favour of weakening the Syrian government so its interests converge with those of the United States, but a consolidated Kurdish presence in the north of Syria is the last thing that Turkey would like to see.
Syria is strongly opposed to the creation of a safe zone controlled by the Turkish army and to the consolidation of the Kurdish presence in the north of Syria. So Turkey has an extensive convergence of interests with the Syrian government.
Syria’s position will probably be supported by Russia and Iran with whom Turkey cooperates in the Astana/Sochi process. If Russia’s aim of involving Germany and France in the Astana process materialises, Turkey may become further isolated.
Ankara has therefore to find a channel of communication to initiate cooperation with Damascus. Otherwise it will be harming its own long-term interests in Syria.