The United States’ policy in Syria has been, as James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, explained recently, focused on “one mission”: the destruction of the Islamic State (Daesh).
The US attempted to pursue this counter-terrorism mission in isolation from the politics of the broader Syrian war. This failed, as it was bound to do, and it has laid the ground for a series of sub-conflicts, another of which might be about to erupt.
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, it consisted for six months solely of peaceful street protests. These demonstrators were mown down by Bashar al Assad’s dictatorship, supported at all stages by Russia and Iran. The Iranians even involved themselves on the ground.
In August 2011, with hundreds of people already dead, President Barack Obama said: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But instead of trying to implement this policy, Obama spent the next five-and-a-half years backing away from his declaration.
When David Samuels profiled Ben Rhodes, Obama’s spin doctor, he noted that “Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism” about the administration’s foreign policy, which was in nearly all theatres resolved only to be irresolute.
Later, the Obama administration became entranced by “realignment” with Iran. Both factors left the Syrians—and the neighbouring states—alone to face the fallout of the regime’s genocidal rampage and the growing power of the Iran-Russia axis.
The US intervention in Syria, when it did finally come in the summer of 2014, would be against Daesh alone—allowing pro-Assad forces to concentrate on crushing the uprising. Rather than serious support to the beleaguered rebellion—fighting on two fronts against Assad and Daesh—the US tried to avoid this underlying conflict and work through a third force, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to defeat Daesh.
There were many problems with the US policy, but two stood out.
First, supporting the PYD/YPG was partaking in the civil war: Daesh had taken over opposition territories that the US was now helping the YPG capture, altering the balance of power dramatically against the Syrian opposition, and empowering a force with a long history of good relations with the regime.
Second, the PYD/YPG is an integrated component of the PKK, recognised internationally as a terrorist group for the brutal separatist war it has waged against Turkey since 1984. This meant that the US was creating potential instability beyond Syria since it was impossible for Turkey to be unconcerned as the PYD consolidated a statelet in north-eastern Syria.
Something approaching 50,000 people have been killed in the Turkey-PKK war. In 2013, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempted to find a solution to the crisis. With the breakdown of the negotiation process in 2015, exposed Turkey to a wave of domestic terrorism from both the PKK and Daesh.
The PKK often utilised a cover, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), for its most atrocious urban bombings in Turkey. Much of the PKK’s force had moved from its base in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq to PYD/YPG-held “Rojava” area, and these Syrian territories became a logistics and support base for the attack on Turkey.
In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in Northern Aleppo, clearing the last major Daesh pocket in the area, and not-coincidentally blocking the YPG/PKK’s ability to create a corridor along the entire Syria-Turkey border. In January 2018, Ankara launched a second operation, Olive Branch, to clear the YPG out of Afrin, the canton of “Rojava” that was geographically isolated from the rest in northwest Syria.
The level of terrorism has fallen precipitously inside Turkey since the PKK was pushed away from the border, and it is doubtless this is what President Erdogan had in mind when he announced on Wednesday that Turkey had “completed … preparations” for a third military operation against the YPG, this time east of the Euphrates River in Syria, where the YPG remains in control of the border. The operation will be launched “in a few days”, Erdogan said.
Many have expressed doubts that Erdogan really would attack this zone. This is not like the Afrin operation: there are US troops embedded with the YPG east of the Euphrates. And, despite some of the rhetoric, Erdogan has been rather cautious.
In his speech this week, he reiterated, “We have no animosity toward the US administration or US troops in Syria”, adding: “We see the US as a strategic ally” and the “deep differences” over Syria should not prevent cooperation in the future.
The proximate cause of this intervention, if it occurs, will be the announcement by the US late last month, and the installation in the last few days, of “observation posts” in “Rojava”, alongside Turkey’s border. The US presentation of these as a means of protecting Turkey from Daesh, rather than (as is the case) a means of protecting the YPG from Turkey, was felt as insult added to injury in Ankara.
Forestalling this new reality, where the YPG east of the Euphrates would be off-limits to Turkey and able to strengthen its position in advance of the next round of fighting, is a powerful incentive for the Turkish government to act at this time. That said, if there is a Turkish incursion, it is likely that it will, at least initially, be more limited than previous operations, aiming to push the YPG off parts of the border and establish a foothold that can be used to alter the terms of the discussion with the Americans.
With or without action, it seems Erdogan is looking to increase Turkey’s leverage in the negotiations with the US, particularly over Manbij. A recent cryptic statement from the US suggested that the Manbij model, where theoretically the YPG’s influence is diminishing, and joint US-Turkish management is taking over, was being planned for “other areas”.
If Turkey has already captured some of those areas or shown a willingness to, it makes it easier to press this point.
A senior Turkish official suggested that something of the kind might be afoot. “We are capable of acting against this terrorist corridor”, said the official. “But dialogue is ongoing. You have to negotiate and show your strength at the same time.”
Still, nobody can say with any certainty what will happen. The reports that parts of the border wall have been removed opposite Ras al-Ayn (now named Sere Kaniye), seventy miles east of Tel Abyad, seem to be false, though Erdogan is mobilising. This sort of signalling would be expected whatever the case.
The US has consistently refused to adopt to a more balanced policy between Turkey and the YPG in Syria, instead maximally committing to the YPG. This has hindered the ostensible pivot from anti-Daesh operations to an anti-Iran strategy, isolating the US in Syria, and an eroding US control of events in the country. A Turkish operation into areas nominally under US suzerainty would be another demonstration of this.
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