Ankara might not have free hand in Syria after US exit

The “YPG will patch up relations with Damascus as soon as US troops pull,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Filling a vacuum. A Russian soldier guards a checkpoint in Bosra in south-western Syria.                                    (AFP)
Filling a vacuum. A Russian soldier guards a checkpoint in Bosra in south-western Syria. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Russia and the Syrian government of Bashar Assad could be the winners of a new row between NATO allies Turkey and United States over the future of northern Syria, analysts said.

Just months after turbulences in Turkish-US relations calmed following the release of a US pastor from jail in Turkey, a simmering conflict between the two countries erupted into open controversy January 8 during a visit by US national security adviser John Bolton to Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with Bolton and said his military was preparing to cross into northern Syria despite calls by the United States not to do so. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested the intervention could start before the US withdrawal of its troops was completed.

Bolton’s failure to change Ankara’s plans means that a coordinated approach in northern Syria by Turkey and the United States, which has 2,000 troops in the region, has become unlikely. Russia and the Damascus government could see their role in the area strengthened as a result.

Turkey and the United States are divided by their view of the Kurdish-Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant local forces in the area. While Turkey sees the PYD and the YPG as terrorist groups, the United States has enlisted the YPG as the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia alliance in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December to withdraw US forces sharpened the row. Bolton asked Turkey to guarantee the safety of YPG fighters after the US pullout, a demand rejected by Erdogan.

“John Bolton has made a very serious mistake,” Erdogan said January 8 while Bolton was meeting with other Turkish officials. “We cannot make any concessions in this regard.”

He said Ankara’s preparations for a military offensive against the YPG were, “to a large extent,” complete.

Tensions between Turkish and US officials ran high during the visit. Erdogan’s top security adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, who met with Bolton for more than two hours, said Turkey would not ask the United States for permission to strike the YPG and demanded that the United States collect weapons that Washington had given to Kurdish fighters for battles against ISIS.

Bolton rebuked an opinion article by Erdogan published in the New York Times in which the Turkish leader restated his position that SDF fighters were members of terrorist groups and criticised the US air campaign against ISIS. An official at the meeting said Bolton told Kalin that Erdogan’s column was “wrong and offensive,” the Associated Press reported.

Erdogan’s hard-line stance, clearly catering to domestic audiences less than three months before Turkish local elections, won applause in the local media. “Cold shower for Bolton,” said the headline in the Aydinlik newspaper.

“Erdogan is both playing to his domestic base and trying to negotiate tough with the Americans,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank.

“The fact of the matter is that both Erdogan and Bolton know that the Turkish military would only enter the areas east of the Euphrates river in north-eastern Syria in order to wipe out the SDF,” Heras said via e-mail.

The row with Washington could limit Turkey’s room to manoeuvre in northern Syria instead of widening it. The PYD has reached out to the Damascus government for protection from Turkey once the US forces withdraw.

Turkey’s Arab rivals could go to the Kurds’ defence as well. Last year, Saudi Arabia promised to pay the United States $100 million to stabilise regions in Syria liberated from ISIS.

Russia, Assad’s ally and the leading military power in Syria, can be expected to play a more active role in the area once US troops are gone, said Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Turkey managed to launch two operations in Syria because Russia gave the green light,” Tol said by telephone, in reference to Turkish incursions in 2016 and 2018. “If America is out of the picture, Russia might be not as willing to accept a Turkish presence in Syria.”

There are signs Russia is stepping up military activities in northern Syria. Russian military police have been patrolling near the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, the Associated Press said.

The US-led anti-ISIS coalition said on January 11 that the process of the US pullback had started. The coalition “has begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria. Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements,” US Army Colonel Sean Ryan said.

The development could reinforce efforts by the Assad government to regain international acceptance after almost eight years of war, said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The “YPG will patch up relations with Damascus as soon as US troops pull,” Landis wrote on Twitter.

If Damascus teams up with the Kurds to fight ISIS in eastern Syria, the United States will face a dilemma, Landis wrote.

“If Assad and the YPG begin to cooperate on counterterrorism, Washington will have to follow. This, I believe, is what really infuriates the Bolton crowd. US policy has been to turn out Assad, not to reopen relations with him,” he said.