Arab News on March 8, 2017. Setbacks in Turkey’s Syria policy

Turkey may face new setbacks in Syria. One of them may stem from a Russian initiative launched in Al-Bab in northern Syria. Russia mediated between Turkey and Syria to prevent any direct clash between their armies. It persuaded the two sides to refrain from crossing the Aleppo-Manbij highway that goes through the southern suburbs of Al-Bab.
This was perceived by Turkey as a signal that Russia will not be happy if the Turkish Army crosses south of this line. However, there is a risk that the line will be exploited by the Kurds. They may use it to establish a de-facto corridor between their two cantons, which will go through the government-controlled region beyond the area controlled by Turkey.
The Kurds may refrain from calling it a Kurdish corridor, because this may give Turkey justification to push further south in order to cut the corridor. Damascus may acquiesce to such a fait accompli to annoy Ankara. There are indications that such a scenario will be put into action.
A second setback also came with a Russian move, this time in Manbij. After besieging Al-Bab and almost ensuring its imminent fall to Turkey’s Army, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Now Turkey will turn to Manbij and then to Raqqa if we can agree with the US.”
With a deal struck by Russia between Damascus and a US-backed rebel faction, the Manbij Military Council, a few villages to the west of Manbij were transferred to Syrian government control. Russian, American and Syrian flags are now flown simultaneously on top of various buildings in Manbij, together with flag of the Kurdish YPG.
It is a confusing situation for Turkey. Since the Damascus-backed factions are also backed by Moscow, clashing with them will entail Turkey facing Russian soldiers. US acquiescence to what is taking place in Manbij may indicate that Moscow and Washington may have reached a tacit agreement to prevent Turkey from advancing toward Manbij.
A third setback relates to Turkey’s participation in the military operation to oust Daesh from its de-facto capital Raqqa. Ankara was eager to carry out this operation in cooperation with American forces by excluding the YPG, but the US is reluctant to break its alliance with the group.
US acquiescence to what is taking place in Manbij may indicate that Moscow and Washington may have reached a tacit agreement to prevent Turkey from advancing toward Manbij.
Yasar Yakis
The latest news out of Washington is not encouraging. President Donald Trump had instructed the Pentagon to draft a report in one month discussing options to defeat Daesh. The report is now finalized but Trump has not yet approved it, so it has not yet been disclosed. However, according to piecemeal information, the YPG is still regarded as an important and reliable ally for the US, despite Turkey’s reservations.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-Daesh Operation Inherent Resolve, cited “absolutely zero evidence that the YPG has been a threat to Turkey.” This may be an attempt to convince Ankara that there is no harm in cooperating with the YPG in the Raqqa operation. However, Erdogan said Turkey cannot accept the YPG’s inclusion.
A fourth setback came with the downing of a Syrian jet fighter on March 4 in Turkey, near the Syrian border. The Turkey-backed opposition group Ahrar Al-Sham claimed responsibility. The pilot ejected from the plane and landed in Turkey.
Erdogan is expected to visit Moscow in the first half of March amid this turbulence. He is due to co-chair with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin the High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC). Even without the aforementioned setbacks, his Moscow agenda was already very heavy. The HLCC file includes issues such as Turkey’s expectation of Russia easing economic sanctions and visa obligations for Turkish citizens, as well as a gas pipeline.
There is also the question of the draft constitution for Syria that Russia distributed during the Astana meeting, and the Kurdish conference convened by Russia in Moscow in cooperation with the YPG. Erdogan will raise all these issues, but the setbacks are likely to dominate the talks. In the past, the two leaders were able to solve several difficult problems. Let us hope they can do so this time.

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