Syria endgame: Turkish tactics, American disarray

Erdogan knows he represents the “last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which he has declared as “the sole hope for the Sunni world.”
Sunday 16/12/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Islamist parliamentarians during a meeting in Istanbul, December 14. (Presidential Press Service)
Political juggling. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Islamist parliamentarians during a meeting in Istanbul, December 14. (Presidential Press Service)

“East of Euphrates” has become the newest term in the rough and tumble between Turkey and the United States. It signals a dramatic change in the Syrian endgame. The countdown is on for the American presence in north-eastern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an imminent incursion into Syria. It was apparently said in retaliation for a Pentagon announcement on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. The Pentagon has said that up to 40,000 YPG personnel would work with US troops in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups in the region.

Erdogan was clearly angered by the increase. He said the US-Kurdish alliance should cease immediately.

That two NATO partners are at odds with each other is extremely unusual. The tensions between Ankara and Washington have escalated for some time and the fault line speaks to the growing volatility of world politics and a lack of Western leadership.

That’s not the only reason for Erdogan’s move to expand military operations into Kurdish-controlled parts of north-eastern Syria and the north-western border region of Iraq. Ankara’s turbulent internal power politics means Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been forced to make common ground with the nationalists and militarists.

Erdogan seems to have calculated that his tougher stance will be politically helpful but he is also seeking greater international legitimacy through his usual brinkmanship. So far, the overall Turkish pattern remains tactical vis-a-vis Syria: the AKP and its coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and its backers in the bureaucracy, have not reached a consensus on whether to approach Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Erdogan knows he represents the “last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which he has declared as “the sole hope for the Sunni world.” He resists the idea of rapprochement with Assad, even as the nationalists and “Eurasianists” push for it. This explains the lack of a Syrian strategy in Ankara. The battle against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates’ derivatives in Syria, which the Pentagon sees as the only reliable force against the jihadists, has been tactical and nothing more.

This much is clear: Ankara is determined to establish a 30km-wide buffer zone all along its Syrian border, between the Tigris and Euphrates and beyond. It wants to settle Arab populations in those areas, if possible, to disperse YPG militia and dismantle its structures. It wants to push the Americans to the limit: In terms of alliances, it’s time to choose. Will it be us or them?

The more dramatic fact is the lack of an American strategy on Syria. It was blurred during the Obama era but is even more floating since Donald Trump entered the White House. James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, seems to be alone in his attempts to rescue and restore whatever remains of US policies on the ground but his staunchly pro-Turkish stand and shortsightedness on regional matters have not been helpful. Keep in mind, too, that the US State Department has for months lacked a Middle East policy chief.

It’s increasingly obvious that Washington is playing for time. It has been trying to appease Ankara by going along with some of its demands, such as joint patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border and putting a price on the heads of three leading PKK figures. The Pentagon has also been increasing its logistical support for the Kurdish fighters.

US decision makers are following a limited guidebook based on the objective of fighting ISIS, putting the brakes on Iran’s advances in the region and invalidate the Astana peace process on Syria to renew the Geneva talks.

Then what? Neither the Turkish nor US pattern of behaviour is helpful in discerning an endgame, at least from NATO’s point of view.

In fact, the situation is ideal for Russia to extend its diplomatic influence in the region, consolidate the Damascus regime and, most importantly, make the US military increasingly unwelcome in Syria, while weakening its presence in the region as much as possible.

At that level, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and Erdogan’s road maps converge. Trump is in deep trouble at home; German Chancellor Angela Merkel is leaving in slow motion; Emmanuel Macron’s France is beset by growing instability; the United Kingdom is coping with the folly of Brexit and the entire European Union’s view of the Syrian quagmire is focused on the refugee inflow, period.

Erdogan, who is ambitious about expanding his power at home and abroad, will try to push Washington into a corner. For Putin, this is an excellent gambit. The stage is perfectly set.

When elephants fight, it is the ants that die. Erdogan, who abandoned a peace process with the Kurds for personal reasons, sees them as a soft target. For Putin, the Assad regime’s survival is in Russia’s interests. The Americans, directionless and without a discernible strategy, are left with an existential choice: the Kurds or Turkey.

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