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Turkey’s changing war in Syria

December 7, 2017 at 10:48 am

Turkish army vehicles head to the Syrian border due to ongoing deployment to Idlib’s de-conflict zone on 10 October 2017 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

As the war against Daesh comes to a close, fringe battles in Syria are once again coming to the fore. An enemy that had seemingly united all sides in the conflict, at least in their desire to see the group eliminated, is slowly disappearing, forcing each party to consider how their next move in Syria will best fulfil their national interest.

Turkey has seen its role in Syria’s civil war change over the past six years. From being a strong backer of opposition groups since 2011, to facing the presence of Kurdish militias on its borders and facilitating negotiations with Russia and Iran, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself in a diplomatic and military quandary. The question remains as to what path Turkey will eventually take, but its priorities after Daesh’s departure are markedly different to what they were before.

The rebel rouser

Turkey has been involved in the Syrian conflict from the outset, with its support for opposition forces and condemnation of Bashar Al-Assad’s violent crackdown against anti-government protestors in 2011. Defectors from the Syrian military were trained by Turkey, leading to the creation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA); Ankara granted refuge to prominent anti-Assad activists; and, along with Qatar, Turkey also provided rebel groups with arms and military equipment.

However, as the conflict dragged on, the inability of the Syrian opposition to pull together a united representative front frustrated Turkey. The emergence of Islamic brigades and offshoots of Al-Qaeda in the country —whom the international community moved to designate as terrorist organisations — pushed Erdogan’s government to favour some factions over the others, causing more internal turmoil.

Read: Turkey, Russia, Iran agree on Syrian dialogue summit

In the past two years, Turkey has sought external help to stop the bloodshed, most notably in cooperation with Iran and Russia and the facilitation of de-escalation zones. Despite allegedly agreeing to a ceasefire, though, the Syrian regime has continued to bomb many parts of the country. The siege and bombardment of the suburb of Eastern Ghouta was ignored for many months until last month’s images of children starving to death pushed the UN to send aid into the province and forced Russia to revive the ceasefire deal. Reports from people on the ground indicate that violations of the renewed agreement continue.

Despite the limited success of the treaties, Turkey has extended its involvement, with Turkish forces entering Idlib in October to establish a de-escalation zone in the north of the country. The move was their first direct physical participation in the conflict; Erdogan has since stated his desire to move troops further into Aleppo and Afrin.

Such a move initially prompted criticism as to how Turkey’s attitude towards Syrian rebel groups might develop given the incursion into their territory. Whilst, according to local residents, the Turkish presence inside Idlib was coordinated with opposition alliance Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam (HTS), more recent reports have pointed to Ankara seeking to separate HTS from opposition factions perceived to be more moderate. This is a Russian-initiated strategy, analysts say, but one that Turkey will facilitate due to its influence with groups on the ground.

Turkey has grown tolerant of Russia’s involvement in Syria, pursuing diplomatic cooperation to safeguard its interests and arrive at a solution for the conflict, now in its seventh year. Its desire to see the war resolved has only been strengthened as its priorities shift to the Kurdish militia units on its borders.

The Kurdish question

Turkey’s ongoing tensions with Kurdish nationalists have risen in prominence in recent years, with the conflict over the border in Syria galvanising Kurds across the region, reinvigorating their calls for an independent state. Turkey regards the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) as a proxy for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terror organisation. This made Ankara wary of the YPG’s emergence in the war in 2011 and subsequent battle against Islamist opposition groups. Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds became more complicated with the growing presence of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Both sides have fought against the militants, but both have also accused the other of working with the so-called Islamic State.

In contrast, the US found an ally in the YPG early on. The group’s success against Daesh battalions led it to integrate Kurdish rebels firmly within the international coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the militants; America has been funding the YPG steadily ever since.

Smoke rises from Daesh’s hand made bombs detonated in Jarabulus, Syria on 1 September 2016

The Trump administration’s outright support for the Kurds has thrown Turkey off balance as it struggled to condemn the US for supporting what Ankara views as terrorist entities without alienating American forces and pushing them to give further support to such groups. The Kurds have gained crucial ground in the conflict, including oil fields in the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor. Militia leaders have also expressed their desire to establish an independent Kurdistan in the lands they have occupied that will be governed by a federal system, staying true to the vision of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK.

Read: PKK captures major gas plant in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor

The Turkish government has repeatedly urged the US to reconsider its funding of Kurdish militias and has recently received some response. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Donald Trump had reassured President Erdogan that he had ordered the US Defence Department to stop sending supplies of weapons to the Kurds. The US has also started to withdraw some of its 2,000 troops on the ground.

Pushing a major NATO ally towards Iran and Russia will not work in Washington’s favour, hence the decision to heed Turkey’s concerns. However, the US has made clear that its forces will not leave the region entirely, with the Pentagon stating this week that the military would stay in Syria as long as necessary to ensure that Daesh does not return, echoing last month’s comments by US Defence Secretary James Mattis. For now, withdrawing some support for the Kurds may go some way to easing tensions with Turkey, but the US will not go as far as surrendering to Ankara’s requests where they compromise America’s national interests.

Post-Daesh: all change

The elimination of the universal threat posed by Daesh has not only refocused attention onto the original conflict between President Bashar Al-Assad and opposition groups, but also set the stage for a host of international rivalries.

The US has made clear its desire to stay in the region; it will also undoubtedly wish to oversee the transition to any future Syrian government and ensure that Islamist opposition groups do not gain a foothold in the new structure. Whilst it is unclear as to whether Washington will retain its full support for the YPG in order to achieve that objective, for the moment its strategy remains, in the Americans’ own words, “consistent with their previous policy”.

Turkey’s objective will first and foremost be the battle against Kurdish militia groups. To some extent this is likely to serve the interests of the Syrian opposition, following statements by Kurdish officials who have confirmed their enmity towards the factions, admitting that the Assad regime has become a secondary priority.

For its part, although Russia has been critical of the SDF and accepted Turkey’s request that the YPG not be included in peace negotiations, it has maintained some relationship with Kurdish groups in Afrin in recent years. However, it is ironically with the Syrian regime that Turkey is joined most strongly in its desire to quash Kurdish independence efforts; Assad considers all forces claiming Syrian land other than the regime’s own troops to be occupiers.

Thus, a major question arises: would Turkey tolerate President Assad remaining in power, even though his removal is a key demand of the opposition, if such a move would help to combat Kurdish groups?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

The claim last week that there was no contact between Turkey and Syria “at the moment”, raised questions as to whether such a proposal was on the table. When questioned about the possibility of contact with Damascus in the future, the Turkish President told reporters on his return from meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi that Ankara was focused on removing terror organisations. “What will happen tomorrow is relevant to the circumstances then,” explained Erdogan. “The doors of politics, as you are aware, are always open until the last moment.”

Such a strategy would be immensely controversial and its realisation is dependent mostly on whether Russia will make the retention of Assad a core requirement in the peace process. All three countries are currently focused on upcoming peace talks, agreeing last month in Sochi to hold the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. Erdogan spoke positively of the plan, adding that Turkey, Russia and Iran had reached a consensus on an “inclusive and fair” political transition process in Syria.

As to whether Ankara will choose to make further concessions on the part of the Syrian opposition for the sake of battling the Kurds, remains to be seen. One thing, though, is certain: Turkey’s priorities in Syria are set to be challenged.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.