Analysis |

With Turkish Military Invasion, the Americans Are Once Again Trapped in Syria

As Turkey steps up efforts to take control of the Kurdish-controlled area of Afrin in northern Syria, seemingly with Russia's blessing, the Americans are caught in a diplomatic bind with the Kurds

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Free Syrian army tanks gather close to the border on January 21, 2018 at Hassa, in Hatay province
Free Syrian army tanks gather close to the border on January 21, 2018 at Hassa, in Hatay provinceCredit: AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkey's military, the second largest in NATO, has conducted air strikes and artillery barrages against targets in Afrin, and its soldiers and allied Syrian rebels have tried to push into the Kurdish-held district from west, north and eastern flanks.

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With heavy cloud hindering air support in the last 24 hours, advances have been limited and Kurdish fighters have retaken some territory. Turkish troops and the Syrian fighters have been trying to take the summit of Bursaya Hill, overlooking the eastern approach to Afrin town.

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The necessary coordination between Turkey and Russia was completed on Saturday. Washington also received prior notification of Turkey’s intent to enter the Afrin region that borders Turkey, and even the Syrian Embassy in Turkey got a letter about the launch of Operation Olive Branch, whose aim is to take control of the Afrin province and the Kurdish-controlled city of Afrin in northern Syria.

Together with some 25,000 fighters from the Free Syrian Army – the large militia that was forced to change its strategy, turning from a force that fought the Assad regime into Turkish mercenaries – and with air support, Turkey will want to cleanse the province of what it calls “Kurdish terror organizations.”

This definition includes the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces militia that was formed by the United States as well as other Kurdish militias in 2015. All are considered branches of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which Turkey is conducting a large-scale war on its territory.

Turkey has even made clear that it doesn’t plan to make do with Afrin province but will try to seize control of Manbij, a city east of Aleppo that is also under Kurdish control.

The strategic objective of the incursion is clear: Turkey will do its utmost to prevent the establishment of independent Kurdish cantons along its border; will try to cut off passage between the Kurdish provinces and the Mediterranean via Latakia; and will try to halt implementation of the U.S. plan to establish a 30,000-man Kurdish army that would serve as a type of buffer along the Turkish-Syrian border.

It’s an ambitious move that will require an enormous military effort and blow a huge hole in Turkey’s coffers. But beyond the military objectives, the question is whether Turkey also has political goals in Syria that will grant it some influence on the diplomatic solution Russia has been working on for several months.

Boys standing in front of a building that was hit by rockets fired from Syria, in the border town of Reyhanli, Turkey, January 22, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

To achieve these goals, Turkey must continue to coordinate its moves with Russia and Iran without completely severing the connection with the United States, with whom relations have reached a low point.

Based on the official responses from Russia and Washington, Turkey will not encounter too much diplomatic opposition at this stage. Russia reportedly withdrew its troops from Afrin on the eve of the incursion, demanding only that Turkey not harm the Syrian Army forces operating in the nearby Idlib district and southern Afrin. This means Russia is for now allowing Turkey to make broad tactical moves, so long as it limits itself to the Afrin province and doesn’t broaden its operation to include Idlib, where most of the rebel forces are concentrated.

Russia also wants to maintain the agreements reached in the sixth round of talks in Astana, which include an agreement on the establishment of “de-escalation zones,” including in Idlib province, which is about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from Afrin.

Russia is also concerned about the future of the Sochi peace conference, which is set for early February, and to which rebel representatives – including representatives of the Kurds – were invited despite Turkish opposition. It seems that as long as Turkey is careful to act in a way that does not put Russia’s objectives at risk, it will be allowed to continue its military campaign.

Syria, though, views the Turkish invasion as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and is demanding that it immediately withdraw its troops. But Syrian President Bashar Assad’s protest is irrelevant as long as Russia remains silent.

According to several reports in the opposition media, Turkey reached an agreement with Russia under which it will agree not only to recognize Assad’s continued tenure, but would renew its diplomatic relations with the Assad regime in return for “permission” to act against the Kurds.

If this report is true, renewing relations would be an important consideration for Assad and he may suffice with declarations against the invasion, but not take any military action.

Washington, meanwhile, is also making do with weak declarations against the Turkish invasion, with its spokespeople explaining that Afrin does not interest the United States because it is not part of the battle against the Islamic State. This is a hollow argument, since the war against ISIS is almost over, but it will serve as an excuse for the continued presence of several thousand U.S. advisers and fighters who will work mainly alongside the Kurds.

In the absence of any U.S. policy – or involvement – in the diplomatic process to resolve the Syrian crisis, the Americans have no choice but to follow the Russian and Turkish moves, and reexamine their continued support for the Kurds daily. It was actually France that led Western calls for a UN Security Council emergency debate on the incursion, with that session currently scheduled for Monday.

Diplomatic bind

Iran has a different concern. Aside from its aspiration to strengthen Assad’s regime, it wants to have a dominant influence in Syria after the war. But in order to achieve this, it must coordinate its policy with Russia – and especially with Turkey – so that Turkish military activity does not leave parts of Syria under direct Turkish control on the pretext of a war against the Kurds.

As a result, both Iran and Russia are committed to stopping Turkey from expanding its activities beyond the Afrin region, while at the same time reaching agreements with the Kurds so they will not serve as an excuse for a Turkish presence in northern Syria.

The agreement on the de-escalation zone in the city of Idlib states that Chechen forces will operate as a military police force in the eastern part, while Russian and Iranian forces will remain outside the city limits; Free Syrian Army forces will control the western part of the city under the command of Turkish forces; and Turkish outposts will be established around the city to supervise the cease-fire. And Turkey has seemingly reached secret agreements with the jihadist militant group Tahrir al-Sham – some of whose units were previously affiliated with the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front – under which Tahrir al-Sham fighters and Turkish forces will avoid attacking each other and would even cooperate.

The Astana accords grant Turkey a recognized status in Syria, at least until a solution is found there. The Kurds fear the Turkish presence in Idlib (as part of the Astana agreements) and the advance of the Syrian army’s control in the south of the province will become a basis for attacks against them if they do not obtain guarantees from Russia against such a possibility. For now, though, these countries don’t seem to have anything to offer the Kurds.

It’s true the Russians are giving the Kurds status and a seat at the Sochi conference; Iran has connections to the Kurdish leadership in Syria; and Assad is likely to agree to their participation in the postwar government (if he remains president) and even to a degree of autonomy after years when they were excluded from power, with some not even having Syrian citizenship.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saluting as he addresses ruling party members in Bursa, Turkey, January 21, 2018.Credit: Kayhan Ozer/AP

But such promises, which have yet to be made, will not necessarily convince the Kurds – especially given the Kurds’ disappointing experience with the Iraqi government and the strong Turkish opposition to giving the Kurds any autonomous status in Syria. And the Kurds don’t have too many alternatives. In fact, they must decide whether to support the Russian effort or remain under U.S. patronage, which in the meantime gives them military and financial backing, but does not guarantee them autonomy or special rights in Syria. What will make it difficult for the Kurds to decide is their recognition of America’s weakness in the Syrian arena and Turkey’s place in the international equation.

“If the United States has to decide between Turkey and the Kurds, it will choose Turkey – and the Kurds know that,” a Kurdish political activist in Turkey told Haaretz.

“The United States has political and economic interests that require it to maintain good relations with Turkey, especially in light of Turkey’s proximity to Russia and its cooperation with Iran. Proof of this can be found in America’s weak response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s verbal tirade against it. If it were the opposite way around, Erdogan would have already cut off relations with Washington,” added the activist, who has close ties to the Kurdish leadership in Syria.

The United States is poised to suffer another diplomatic defeat in Syria as a result of poor planning or lack of understanding about how the area operates. If it previously believed it could use the Kurdish forces as effective mercenaries to fight ISIS, and after that simply let them crack their heads against the Syrian regime, it is now trapped in an international thicket because its policy toward the Kurds – and especially the idea of establishing a Kurdish army – has set the area ablaze and created a diplomatic trap for the Americans.

If Washington decides to maintain its support for the Kurds, it could lose Turkey and lead Russia to offer the Kurds an impossible ultimatum – one in which they would have to choose between a role in Syria’s future and a war against Turkish and Syrian regime forces. If the United States disassociates itself from the Kurds, it will not necessarily “gain” Turkey, which has accounts with the Americans on other complex issues. Furthermore, it will surely lose any credibility not only with regard to the Syrian crisis, but in the Middle East altogether.

Now, after U.S. President Donald Trump burned bridges with the Palestinians in December when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, bickered with Pakistan over foreign aid and is working to topple the nuclear agreement with Iran, there is a powerful explosive device waiting for him around the corner at the Afrin-Idlib junction.

Reuters contributed to this report

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