Advantages but also many risks for Turkey from US Syria withdrawal

Turkey’s new role in Syria comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction among Turkish voters with the presence of approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees in the country.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Overreach. Turkey’s Defence Minister and former Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar (C) and top army commanders visit Turkish troops stationed at the border with Syria in Kilis, December 31. 			      (AP)
Overreach. Turkey’s Defence Minister and former Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar (C) and top army commanders visit Turkish troops stationed at the border with Syria in Kilis, December 31. (AP)

ISTANBUL - The planned withdrawal of US forces from Syria is a mixed blessing for neighbouring Turkey, giving Ankara more room to manoeuvre but creating risks both abroad and at home.

In the first known trip of its kind since the start of the Syrian war almost eight years ago, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and senior Turkish commanders visited a mediaeval tomb near the northern Syrian village of Esme. Speaking at the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Akar said the Turkish military had taken on a new responsibility in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Akar was referring to an agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump that gives Turkey a crucial role in efforts to destroy the last major ISIS bastion in Syria. Erdogan reportedly promised Trump that Turkey would finish off the jihadists, who have been reduced to an area close to the Iraqi border in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

“We will implement this in the coming days,” Akar said in remarks interpreted by some Turkish media outlets as a hint that a new Turkish intervention into Syria could occur soon. Senior US officials are expected to visit Ankara in January.

For years, Erdogan criticised US support for the Kurdish militia Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. Turkey argues that the YPG, the leading US partner in the fight against ISIS, is the Syria affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), seen as a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington.

Trump’s abrupt announcement in December to withdraw the 2,000 US soldiers from Syria exposes the YPG to a Turkish attack, potentially strengthening Erdogan’s role in Syria. Turkey says it wants to push the YPG back from the border and has been massing troops and weapons in preparation for an assault but Trump, faced with heavy criticism, has suggested that the withdrawal could be drawn out over months.

Magdalena Kirchner, a senior analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, said the slowdown of the US withdrawal was in Turkey’s interest. A continued US presence in Syria served Turkish security concerns in making sure that the fight against ISIS would go on and in providing a counterbalance to Iran’s influence in the region, Kirchner said via e-mail.

The agreement with Washington has left Turkey’s alliance with Russia and Iran in Syria intact. Moscow said a meeting of the three countries is scheduled for this month.

Trump’s decision provided a domestic boost for Erdogan because many Turkish voters share his mistrust towards US intentions in Syria and want the PKK defeated. News of the withdrawal was a “political triumph over the US and the PKK/YPG” for the Erdogan government, Kirchner wrote.

The resignations of US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Washington’s envoy for the fight against ISIS, Brett McGurk, are also among the consequences of Trump’s withdrawal order welcomed in Ankara. Turkey was especially incensed by McGurk, who was considered very close to the YPG.

Erdogan’s deal with Washington carries risks for Turkey as well. He said in December that Turkey would “clean” Syria of “YPG/PKK elements as well as of remnants of ISIS.” There are doubts, however, whether Ankara’s troops and their Syrian allies can take on ISIS.

Kirchner pointed out that while Turkish troops fought ISIS in the border region before, they never faced the jihadists in Deir ez-Zor, 200km south of the Turkish border, where resistance was expected to be fierce. “US experts and former officials keep underlining that Turkey’s Syrian allies are unable to fill the vacuum in the fight against ISIS created by the loss of the SDF,” she wrote.

Citing unnamed US officials, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that Ankara vastly overstated the number of pro-Turkish fighters ready to attack ISIS. Also, Turkey’s military capabilities were so overstretched that the country asked the United States “to provide overhead surveillance, logistical support and air cover for any operation to finish off the Islamic State in the Middle Euphrates River Valley” but Washington rejected the request, he wrote.

In a another sign that tensions between the United States and Turkey over Syria continue to simmer, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with the Newsmax website, spoke of the “importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds.” Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, US Chief of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford and the administration’s Syria envoy James Jeffrey are expected in Ankara January 8 for talks with Turkish officials.

Stepping up the military campaign against ISIS could trigger revenge attacks by ISIS sleeper cells in Turkey itself, Kirchner added.

Turkey’s new role in Syria comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction among Turkish voters with the presence of approximately 3.7 million Syrian refugees in the country.

A video showing young Syrian men celebrating the new year and waving a Syrian opposition flag on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square went viral among Turkish Twitter users, many of whom complained that Syrians were dancing on Turkish streets while Turkish soldiers were risking their lives trying to secure parts of Syria.

A poll released last year indicated that two out of three Turkish respondents said Syrian refugees take away their jobs, are responsible for a rise in crime and damage “moral values” of the host country. “We do not want Syrians here,” Selin, a real estate agent near Taksim Square, said recently. “They should return to their own country and fight.”

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