Turkey not out of the woods despite tactical victory in Syria

The offensive has been a major tactical victory for Erdogan.
Wednesday 06/11/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP)

Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring ended with deals struck with Washington and Moscow that will see a portion of north-eastern Syria bordering Turkey under Turkish military control and other border areas subject to joint Russian-Turkish patrols.

Turkish media trumpeted the agreements as a victory but they left many questions unanswered on the future of the Syrian conflict and the uncertain situation could lead to dangers for Turkey.

The deals mean Turkey has taken a major step towards the main objective laid out by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- to clear its border of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and autonomous administrations it considered a terrorist statelet because of their links to outlawed Kurdish militant groups.

So, the pro-government media’s verdict on Turkey’s operation and the “historic” negotiations that put it on hold were, for once, difficult to disagree with.

The offensive has been a major tactical victory for Erdogan, bolstering his domestic standing when cracks in his government were showing and granting Turkey a larger stake in the final stages of the Syrian conflict.

It may even grant the Turkish president his wish of new settlements across the border where he can resettle millions of Syrian refugees, who are increasingly unwelcome in Turkey, while reinvigorating his country’s stuttering construction sector.

The toughest criticism opposition-aligned newspapers could manage was pointing out that the deal with Moscow implicitly recognises Bashar Assad, the Syrian president whom Erdogan’s government vowed would be toppled within months of the conflict’s beginning in 2011.

For the left-wing nationalist daily Aydinlik, this was a cause for celebration -- “a lethal blow to US separatism” it said on its front page, referring to a popular conspiracy theory that says the United States has been attempting to create a Kurdish state to Balkanise the region.

The Patriotic Party, to which the newspaper is closely tied, is a key focal point for the nationalists who pushed for a pivot towards Russia long before the ruling Justice and Development Party began its courtship with Moscow. Now some of the party’s long-held ambitions are coming to fruition, with the Syria deal seen as a landmark in Russian-Turkish relations.

There was further good news for Turkish Eurasianists from the defence sector: the head of Russia’s state arms exporter spoke about sending additional shipments of S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey after Russia and Turkey clinched their Syria deal.

And, days after the Turkish defence minister promised Turkey would soon return to the F-35 fighter jet programme, the pro-government Daily Sabah reported that talks with Moscow had progressed to buy Su-35 fighter jets.

The story may be a way of applying pressure on the US government, which removed Turkey from the F-35 programme for its S-400 purchase. Either way, it demonstrates how the Turkish government has created opportunities from its space between Moscow and Washington.

Though it has not been all roses from Moscow. The recent video call between Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and SDF commander Mazloum Kobani raised hackles in Turkey and points to what could be complications down the line for Ankara.

This is because the deal with Moscow brings Assad’s forces back to the border with Turkey and could mean that the SDF is folded into the Syrian Arab Army, Syrian Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed said in an interview with the Atlantic.

The deal thus passes the security of Turkey’s southern border from Washington, which had every reason to safeguard its NATO ally, to Damascus, which has used Kurdish militants against Turkey prior to an agreement in 1998, with Moscow as a guarantor.

With Washington out of the picture, this could leave Turkey at a disadvantage, since it is still at odds with Damascus -- and by extension Moscow -- in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the country, which government forces and Russian jets have been bombarding for months.

It is yet to be seen what kind of arrangement Erdogan has made with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the province but the government advance this summer sent thousands of Syrians to the Turkish border, threatening a refugee wave the Turkish vice-president said would be impossible for Turkey to accommodate.

With Damascus poised to regain full control of Syria, the fate of the Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has backed for nearly a decade remains a huge question mark, as Turkish columnist Can Atakli noted.

If it is still early to apprehend how the complex new status quo carved out by Turkey in north-eastern Syria will work, the US position is simply too chaotic to grasp.

US President Donald Trump has gone from vowing to protect the Kurds to giving the green light to the attack by Turkey, whose economy he later threatened to destroy because of the operation, which he went on to commend as a necessary step so a deal could be reached.

The one constant throughout the saga has been Trump’s determination to pull US troops out of Syria and what he called the endless wars in the Middle East.

This is apparently not to be: not only has Trump’s Syria envoy James Jeffrey said US forces would continue working with the SDF but the US president has become fixated on Syria’s oil reserves. US news outlets reported a possible deployment of tanks to the oilfields in Deir ez-Zor, to which Trump suggested “the Kurds” should move.

The disgust in Washington and around the world at Trump’s decision to withdraw was writ clear at a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. The title said it all: “The Betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish Partners: How Will American Foreign Policy and Leadership Recover?”

In the face of such criticism, Trump’s later moves came across as little more than flailing, to justify a decision that is near-universally deplored.

It is a move that could have repercussions for the US president far beyond Syria. During a White House meeting on Syria after Turkey began its operation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked why all of Trump’s foreign policy decisions seemed to benefit Putin, provoking a “meltdown” from the American president.

The same question could be raised for Trump’s relations with Erdogan and four senators raised questions about a potential conflict of interest raised by Trump’s business interests in Turkey.

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Michael Mackenzie is a journalist focusing on Turkey. This article first appeared on ahvalnews.com and is republished with permission.