By Zvi Bar’el
Turkey continues to operate in Syria, seeking to curb Kurdish independence aspirations. Tensions with the U.S. and Russian desires to ensure calm for Assad, however, may force Erdogan to act differently.
The battles around the Syrian town of Raqqa still haven’t ended. The various forces taking part – particularly the Kurds, who have borne the brunt of the ground war – report each day on the new bits of territory they have liberated from the Islamic State. Prominently featured was the recent capture of Syria’s largest oil field, Al-Omar, which used to produce 9,000 barrels a day.
The Kurds, with massive assistance from the U.S. Air Force, have now regained control of 80 percent of Syria’s oil fields and of 15 percent of Syria’s population, now living in about one-quarter of the country’s territory. These figures are impressive not just as testimony to the Kurds’ military prowess – and the weakness of Islamic State, or ISIS – but also because the Syrian Kurds have become a significant political player as well as a military one in the war.
The capture of ISIS’ unofficial capital of Raqqa, much like the liberation of Mosul in Iraq, raises questions about earlier intelligence assessments of the jihadist militant organization’s capabilities, and especially, about whether these same results couldn’t have been achieved two years ago. But it’s premature to draw conclusions about the war’s conduct to date.
More important is the fact that there seems to be no real strategy that will determine where the war goes from here, and what the political arrangements in Syria will look like after the conclusion of the “war on terror.” The latter has become the principal reason for American involvement in Syria and Iraq, as well as an area of cooperation between Russia and America, and between both powers and Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee, warned recently that America must determine its own interests and how to achieve them in Syria. The lack of such a strategy is being felt acutely, he added, even while America is celebrating the victory in Raqqa.
McCain’s words were aimed squarely at the conduct of his fellow Republican, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has so far avoided defining where America is headed in the Middle East in general or in Syria in particular. But without defining America’s interests, the “war on terror” will have no end date and no diplomatic solution.
Though the battles haven’t yet ended, the temporary map of control among the various forces is becoming clear. In the near future, these forces will be focused on two main fronts.
One is the continuation of the war in the east, along the Iraqi border, where the Kurds want to take over the border town of Al-Bukamal. The other is the city of Idlib, where most of the rebel militias’ forces are now concentrated, and which has already been designated as the center of a “de-escalation zone” in which Turkey will be the dominant player.
In both places, Turkey seeks to reduce Kurdish control in order to block the possibility of the Kurds establishing a contiguous autonomous zone stretching all across northern Syria, from west to east, along Turkey’s southeastern border. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey had “completed most of its mission in the Idlib region” and that it had already trained more than 5,600 Turkish policemen to keep the peace in Idlib and the surrounding area.
Around 10 Turkish bases, backed by tanks, have been set up throughout the area, and according to both Turkish and Syrian sources, Turkey has reached local agreements on a cease-fire even with Ahrar al-Sham, a rebel coalition comprised mainly of radical Islamic groups, including the one formerly known as the Nusra Front. Nevertheless, this is still far from being a quiet front.
Turkey also wants to capture the city of Afrin, a few dozen kilometers from Idlib. A large Kurdish contingent is stationed in Afrin, and Turkey wants to eliminate the Kurds’ territorial foothold there to disrupt Kurdish territorial contiguity.
For now, this Turkish move has Russian support, since it falls within the understandings reached in the Kazakh capital of Astana on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria. Although Syria demanded the removal of Turkish forces from its territory, on the grounds that this violates its sovereignty, it seems that at present, there is no power capable of ordering Turkey out of the country.
But the Idlib front and Turkey’s anti-Kurdish strategy are on a collision course with the Trump administration, which still views the Syrian Kurds as an essential and effective force in the continued military operations against the Islamic State. American military assistance to the Kurds has already caused tension and confrontation between Erdogan and Trump because Erdogan views the Kurds as a terrorist group working hand in hand with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which is deemed a terrorist organization in Turkey. For his part, however, Trump has heaped praise on the Kurdish forces and continues to supply them with military equipment and funding in their continued fight.
It has become clear to Erdogan that his ally from Washington isn’t exactly the ally of his dreams. It’s not just that Trump has no intention of extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish religious leader living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Turkey accuses of planning the attempted Turkish military coup in July of last year. Trump also doesn’t hesitate to give Erdogan a rap on the knuckles when it damages America’s reputation. When Turkish security forces arrested a Turkish employee at the American embassy in Ankara, Trump ordered a halt to the issuance of tourist visas to Turkish citizens. Turkey did in fact respond in kind, but it was still clear who had the upper hand. Erdogan managed to provoke the ire of Washington when he signed a deal to buy Russian S-400 missiles, which cannot be integrated into the strategic weapons systems of NATO, of which Turkey is a member. And even though Trump hasn’t been getting terribly upset over violations of human rights in Turkey, that issue has also put an additional strain on U.S.-Turkish relations.
American differences with Turkey are secondary, however, to the explosive ties between the United States and Russia. Moscow has been unchallenged in directing the military and political approach to Syria. Interestingly, despite the cooperation between the Kurds and Russia, Turkey is not uttering a word against Russia. When it comes to the future of Syria, Moscow is a much more vital ally for Ankara than Washington.
So, for example, in its hold on Idlib and previously in the Jarabulus region and its campaign over the town of Al-Bab – all important Kurdish strongholds —Turkey enjoyed Russian backing and did not require American consent. The same is true with regard to the future of Syria, which will be determined in Moscow and not Washington — and not only because Russia has an endgame strategy, while Washington waits for Trump’s next tweet.
Russia’s strategy involves a clear diplomatic blueprint designed to allow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in place, at least until elections are held. It provides for the formation of a temporary government of national unity that would include representatives of legitimate rebel groups, as defined by Russia; the drafting of a constitution, the principles of which have already been developed by Russian experts; and prior to all of this, a cease-fire, not only in the four planned security areas, but in the country as a whole.
For the time being, Russia has not addressed the future status of the Syrian Kurds or the presence of Iranian forces in Syria. Turkish diplomatic sources have told Haaretz that Ankara is not depending on Russia to prevent the establishment of an independent Syrian Kurdish enclave, despite the good relations between Ankara and Moscow. “Having quiet and allowing Assad to run the country under Russian direction is in the Russian interest. If this quiet requires giving autonomy to the Kurds, [Russia] will force Assad’s hand and not necessarily take Turkish interests into account,” a diplomatic source who deals with Turkish Middle East policy said.
“Russia will be prepared for a temporary and limited Turkish presence inside Syria to ensure quiet along the border, but it will put a halt to any Turkish attempt to bring about a military confrontation with the Kurds,” another Turkish diplomatic source said.
And what about Iran’s military presence in Syria? “At the moment, no one has an answer regarding what Russia’s position on Iran’s status in Syria would be. It would be an exaggeration to expect that Russia would get into a military confrontation with Iranian forces to extract them from Syria. What’s more, Syria owes billions of dollars to Iran and also has a diplomatic debt as a result of the unqualified assistance and backing that Iran has been providing it,” the source said.
The assumption of these sources is that, despite the fact that Trump is an unpredictable president, he would not get himself into a military confrontation with Iran on Syrian soil. Actually no one in Turkey is even addressing Washington’s position. It’s as if the Americans represented a minor country rather than a world power.
For the time being, there doesn’t really appear to be a pressing time frame when it comes to Syria. At the end of the month, another meeting is scheduled in the Kazakh capital where Iranian, Turkish and Russian representatives will coordinate the continued establishment of security areas, but at this point, there is no agreement on a date for a summit conference in Geneva on a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The main pressure is humanitarian, and concerns more than 200,000 people who cannot return to their homes in Raqqa following the total destruction that the city in the course of the bombing and the fighting to liberate it.
Thousands of roadside bombs and mines are strewn among its roads. Water and electricity supply is non-existent. Medical clinics and schools are not functioning, and more than 80 percent of the city’s homes are unfit for habitation. But as usual, they don’t represent a “strategic problem.” When all is said and done, Raqqa is just one more city that will have to wait years until its residents can live anything resembling a normal life.