Arab News on February 15, 2017. Turkey’s entanglement in Al-Bab

Russia’s Defense Ministry on Feb. 10 said Syrian government troops had reached the line of contact with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) by agreement with Ankara. This statement raises several questions. In diplomatic practice, when a bilateral deal is to be announced, it is done with a joint communique. A unilateral statement gives the impression that it is a message to the other side, that Turkey should not cross the line of contact.
One day before this communique, Russian warplanes accidentally hit a Turkish Army position in Al-Bab, killing three soldiers. President Vladimir Putin quickly phoned his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to express his condolences over the airstrike, blaming the incident on “poor coordination” between Moscow and Ankara.
Turkish military authorities insisted the coordinates of the house where the soldiers were accommodated had been conveyed to Russian authorities long before the attacks. Putin’s phone call fell short of a plain apology, meaning Russia is not prepared to assume entire responsibility for the incident. Turkish media thus questioned whether there was something other than “poor coordination.”
FSA fighters, heavily supported by the Turkish Army, are trying hard to seize Al-Bab. This town is in a strategic location for Daesh because it is on the route linking Daesh-occupied parts of Aleppo province and its de facto capital Raqqa. Al-Bab is also important for Turkey because it wants to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from linking the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Afrin.
A second actor racing to seize Al-Bab is the Syrian government, helped by Russia and various Iran-supported militias. Turkish and Syrian forces are a few kilometers from each other. This is a fragile standoff. It may lead to a conflagration by any inadvertent move or fire by an irresponsible soldier.
The third actor interested in Al-Bab is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), but it is now preoccupied with the Raqqa operation, so it cannot spare fighters to try to enter Al-Bab before the Turkish Army. However, the Kurds are supported by both Russia and the US. They may use this as leverage to make life difficult for the Turkish Army in and around Al-Bab.
There is also the US factor to take into account, but its efforts are more focused at present on the Raqqa front. Turkey tried to persuade former US President Barack Obama’s administration to carry out the operation to retake Raqqa in cooperation with the Turkish Army, but Obama believed the YPG was the most reliable ally in the fight against Daesh.
Trilateral US-Turkey-YPG cooperation is out of question, because Turkey considers the YPG the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that it is fighting in its own country.
When Daesh is defeated in Al-Bab, the ideal solution will be to reach an agreement between Ankara and Damascus to not let the PYD take control of the town, and to let Syrians decide how they want to administer it.
Yasar Yakis
Nobody can tell how long it will take to defeat Daesh in a town where it is deeply entrenched. The Turkish Army is aware of the difficulty of fighting it house to house. It is also difficult to tell who will control the town once Daesh is defeated. If the Syrian Army seizes it, Turkey cannot be expected to continue its push and take a Syrian town from the Syrian Army.
Ankara has no intention to stay in Syrian territory for a prolonged period. It has announced on more than one occasion that it is “not coveting one inch of Syrian territory,” and that it supports the country’s territorial integrity. Therefore, even if the Turkish Army seizes the town, it will have to hand over control to Syrian authorities, at the latest when the Syrian crisis is over, if not earlier.
When Daesh is defeated in Al-Bab, the ideal solution will be to reach an agreement between Turkey and Syria to not let the PYD take control of the town, and to let Syrians decide how they want to administer it.
This is in line with what the PYD had promised the international community. The proportion of Kurds in the population of Al-Bab area is supposed to be less than a quarter. It is also in line with Turkey’s and Syria’s desire to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity.
Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis is a facilitating factor to achieve it. The administration of US President Donald Trump may also support this solution, because Trump’s preference is to find a way to bring together the Turks and Kurds and benefit from the strength of both. If this happens, it may lay the foundation for a solution to Turkey’s problem with its own Kurds.

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