Relations between Ankara, Moscow and Washington could determine the endgame in Syria.
A child waves toward Turkish troops heading to the Syrian border, in Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 26. Photo: AP
On Aug. 24, Turkey launched the military operation “Euphrates Shield” against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in northern Syrian town of Jarablus. Rebels from the Free Syrian Army also participated in the operation. The operation marks the first time since the beginning of Syrian civil war that the Turkish army has moved into its neighbor’s territory.
The civil war in Syria has had grave implications for many in the region, and so far, the only group that could be counted a clear winner is the Syrian Kurds. Although Kurds make up only 10 percent of the population of Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group that is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), control approximately 20 percent of Syria’s territory.
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Through its armed branch, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the PYD has been enlarging its area of control and aims to unite the Afrin canton, an autonomous region it controls in northwestern Syria, with two other neighboring regions, with the support of the U.S. and its European allies. Such a move would not only accelerate the fragmentation of Syria, but also bring the PYD one step closer to its general aim of controlling a corridor that has access to the Mediterranean. Such a corridor would help keep the prospects of Kurdish state(s) alive.
In July, keeping in mind the general aim of completing the corridor, the YPG captured the city of Manbij, which left the cities of Jarablus and Al-Bab the largest remaining obstacles in the way of the corridor’s creation. It is this situation that led Turkey to send its tanks across the border. Turkey, which sees the completion of the corridor as a threat to its territorial integrity, decided to take Jarablus from ISIS before the YPG had the chance.
Only a week before Turkey moved towards Jarablus, Syrian government forces bombed YPG positions around the city of Hasaka, indicating that Damascus is no more agreeable to the creation of a Kurdish state than Ankara. The creation of a Kurdish state would open the way for the de facto disintegration of Syria.
Taking into consideration the fact that Damascus is protected by Moscow and Russian-Turkish relations are improving, it could be argued that Turkey’s recent military activities in Syria are a result of the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement.
The summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Reccep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg was a turning point in this regard. Following the summit, it appears that Russia and Turkey are trying to find common ground for solving the Syrian crisis through a tacit agreement under which Moscow will decrease its support of the Syrian Kurds in return for Ankara giving up its attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
After the summit, the parties also agreed to form a joint military and intelligence mechanism to coordinate their activities in Syria. Given these developments, it is difficult to presume that the regime’s recent actions against the YPG and Turkey’s moves into Syria could have been done without Moscow’s consent.
Nevertheless, both Moscow and Damascus expressed concern only after Turkey successfully took Jarablus. A different kind of official reaction cannot be expected at this moment. Officially, Assad had to defend the borders of his country, and the Turkish-Russian rapprochement is an ongoing process whose outcome is not clear.
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For now, a positive outcome for Ankara and Moscow could be following: After cleansing both ISIS and the PYD out of the area west of the Euphrates, the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) could leave territory to the Damascus regime, with a possible security guarantee for the repatriation of Syrian immigrants in Turkey. In return for this, Russia could make necessary arrangements to abolish the Kurdish-controlled Afrin canton and return it to the regime.
There is also another, less likely and negative, scenario under which Turkish forces inside of Syria would encourage the FSA in its military engagements against the regime, or that Russia would accelerate its support for the PYD in hopes that the Syrian Kurds would switch their allegiance from Washington to Moscow.
Here, U.S.-Turkish relations are the most important factor in determining future developments. Officially, the U.S. had to support the Turkish operation in northern Syria given the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and a part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
Turkish-American relations are also not in the best shape and the U.S. doesn’t have strong tools to stop the operation. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara as Turkish tanks crossed the border and openly criticized the PYD and called for the YPG forces to retreat. The U.S. is in a kind of Catch-22 regarding its relations with Turkey. Washington cannot risk further alienating Ankara, but neither can it totally betray the PYD, the main force it relies on in Syria.
Turkey, for its part, is in search of a new foreign policy. Its previous adventurous, but unsuccessful neo-Ottomanism is being replaced by a neo-Kemalism that focuses on national interests and respects the territorial integrity of Turkey’s neighbors.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s moves are dependent on a number of external factors — relations with Russia, relations between the U.S. and Russia, not only in Syria, but also in Ukraine, and the respective policies of Washington and Moscow regarding the PYD.
For the first time in the history of the Syrian conflict, the U.S., Russia, and Turkey are heading towards an endgame in Syria and the fate of that country — as well as the future role of Ankara in geopolitics – will depend on relations between the three countries.
The Kurdish question is unprecedentedly critical for Turkey and that’s why it is not difficult to predict that now who supports Turkish position regarding the PKK/PYD more, that will have better relations with Ankara.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.