The most recent events have suggested that there might be a U-turn in Turkey’s policy on Syria. Here the Turks have successfully switched from confrontation to cooperation, but things are not as simple as they may seem.
Since Aug 24, the situation on Syria’s northern front has changed. The Turks have deployed almost 50 vehicles and 500 soldiers in Jarabulus and are enlarging their troops on the border. Their Euphrates Shield operation also involves as many as 4,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels.
They were surprisingly quick in forcing ISIL from the area. The ISIL fighters ran away, leaving the Turks the city and a number of nearby villages.
Experts explain this escape by reluctance to be surrounded. As a result, ISIL has sustained almost no losses and has retained its positions south of Jarabulus. Also there are Kurdish YPG fighters, who do not seem to be going to leave the area despite the Americans’ assurances.
On Aug 24, the Turks undertook no air attacks on the Kurds –perhaps, they had some deal with the Americans. But on Aug 25 they started the attacks.
Officially, the Turks entered Syria following the Free Syrian Army (CCA) with two goals: to destroy all terrorist groups near their borders (meaning ISIL and YPG) and to create a security zone for refugees. Their key strikers were Islamic fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki. All of them were the partners of Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Nusra Front in Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a coalition fighting government forces in Aleppo.
Quite strangely the Turks have neglected one more terrorist enclave in the north of Syria (very close to their border), Aazaz. Even more, some sources report that it was via that town that the Turks’ Islamic allies were dispatched to Jarabulus.
On Aug 28, the Turks launched a large offensive against the Kurds deployed south of Jarabulus. In just 24 hours, they captured 12 Kurd-controlled villages in the area and moved on along Euphrates. According to Turkish commanders, they have moved 8-10 km deep and have struck Kurds all along the frontline. On Sunday, they reached the tributary of Euphrates, Sajur.
This is a serious success. But there is still no stability south of Jarabulus. And this all may end in a double-front war for the Turks.
ISIL is still holding Al-Bab, a town between Aleppo and Jarabulus. And as long as it is in ISIL’s hands, the Caliphate will not leave the Turks in peace. YPG has retreated to the eastern bank of Euphrates but still has fighters near Jarabulus. They have formed a Jarabulus Military Council and have not only defied the Americans’ urges to leave the area but have even struck Turkish tanks thereby inspiring their compatriots from PKK into an outburst in the southeast of Turkey.
Even though the Americans’ measures to pacify the Syrian Kurds look like a well-planned fraud, their commanders have still taken a number of steps. For example, Gen. Stephen Townsend has instructed U.S. special-purpose troops to withdraw from the Syrian-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, more specifically, from the units that have refused to go back to the eastern bank of Euphrates. The U.S. commandos have been sent back to the Rmeilan base in the northeast of Syria. The Americans have also stopped giving arms and information to YPG Kurds west of Euphrates.
The Turks struck the first so as to prevent the Kurds from capitalizing on their victory over ISIL in Manbij. Their pretext for attacking Jarabulus was the terrorist act in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. In fact, it was an attempt to hit several targets at one strike: to throw ISIL and YPG off the Turkish border, to push the Syrian Kurds south of Euphrates and to get stable access to moderate Syrian rebels in Aleppo. Here much - if not all - depends on Russia and Iran.
For the Russians and Iranians, the key stake in Syria is the success of the government forces in Aleppo. So, they will hardly let the Turks get access to that city.
In the meantime, Russia, Iran and Turkey are said to have reached certain agreements. The Turks have reportedly promised to stop sending arms and fighters to Aleppo in exchange for a “bone” in the form of a victory in Jarabulus. Now the question is if they will keep their promise. If they actually wished to fight all terrorists in the area, they would have also attacked the terrorist enclave of Aazaz.
The Syrian Al Qaeda fighters have rebranded their group into Jabhat al-Nusra and have officially broken all contacts with Al Qaeda, but they are still the key force that effectively confront Damascus in the north of Syria.
Al-Nusra Front was renamed into Jabhat al-Nusra after the U.S. drone bombing of their pro-Al Qaeda commanders. The Turkish and Saudi intelligence services are sure to have had a hand in the killings of Abu Firas al-Suri and Rifai Ahmed Taha Musa. Now there is only one al-Nusra commander who is still resisting, Wahhabi preacher from Saudi Arabia Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini. But even he is already urging Islamic fighters to join Jabhat al-Nusra.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are hardly willing to fight that force in Syria. So, Russia and Iran must be on the alert about Turkey’s “humanitarian” steps with respect to Aleppo.
One of their concerns is Turkey’s commitment to “solve” the problem of Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds are the key loser in the Jarabulus case. The United States, Russia and Iran have expressed no concern for their fate. So, their interests may well be sacrificed to Turkey. YPG’s plans to establish control over the Kurdish cantons of Jazira, Kobani and Afrin have been wrecked. Their strategic goal in the west of Euphrates was to restore access to Afrin. Now the most they can hope for is to retain presence south of Jarabulus.
In contrast, the Turks’ plans for the north of Syria are on the rise. Before the Russians’ appearance in Latakia and Khmeimim, the Turks’ goal in northern Syria was to create a 98-km-long security no fly zone from Jarabulus to Aazaz. After the shooting of the Russian Su-24, they were forced to forget it.
But when their president apologized, they remembered their plans. But, of course, nobody will let them be too active as the United States, Russia and Iran all have own interests in the area.
For Russia and Iran, Turkey is, first of all, a NATO member, who can succeed in the Middle East only if it obeys the United States. For the Americans, the key factor here is Kurds, whom they can use as a means of pressure on Turkey. Now they have just loosened the leash. Otherwise, the Turks would not have dared to cross the Syrian border.
In fact, they have thrown a bone to the Turks – a 15-km area of control south of Jarabulus or a minimized version of their cherished security zone. In exchange, the Turks have promised not to stay in the north of Syria for long.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needed a splendid little war so as to strengthen his positions at home. The Americans agreed but in exchange for firm guarantees. For Russia and Iran (2) the guarantee is a softer position on the al-Assad regime. As a result, today Erdogan is even ready for a dialogue with al-Assad.
Thus, Turkey has become more compliant and predictable. But there is one fact for thought here: on Aug 22, Beirut-based As-Safir reported a secret visit by the deputy chief of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization to Syria (3). The key topic was the Kurdish problem. And just two days later Turkish tanks entered Syria and attacked local Kurds.
(1) Mohamed Okda, Why Al-Qaeda, not IS, will win the longer war, Middle East Eye // August 21, 2016.
(2) Iran was always against Turkey’s interference in Syria’s affairs. In summer 2015 Iranian Army Chief Hassan Firouzabadi qualified the Turks’ actions against the anti-ISIL Kurdish forces as a strategic mistake as that would leave their southern border unprotected from potential terrorist attacks.
(3) Earlier, Middle East news sources reported that Turkey and Syria had opened in Algeria a secret channel for exchanging views on the Syrian Kurds.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau