Turkey raises the stakes in northern Syria
This is one of those moments when matters in war-torn Syria become more complicated than they already are and it’s mainly because of Turkey’s focus on Manbij.
The northern Syrian town is controlled by the US-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) but Ankara is emboldened by its seemingly successful offensive in the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
Over 72 hours, from March 27, here is how tensions rose.
In Hasakah province in northern Syria, a new political party named Syria’s Future was established with Ibrahim al-Qaftan as chairman. Qaftan had been a member of the Ba’ath Party’s Manbij unit before the Syrian civil war began and ran the local council after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units took control. Ankara and the pro-government Turkish media slammed the new party as a front for American support for the Kurds.
On March 28, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) issued a statement that declared Ankara “shall not refrain from taking an initiative to disperse the terrorist elements from Manbij, as Turkey did elsewhere.” The statement came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s telephone conversations with his American and French counterparts.
Washington and Paris responded to MGK’s statement in rather a confusing way. US President Donald Trump said during a speech in Ohio: “We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. We’re going to have the 100% of the caliphate, as they call it, sometimes referred to as land. We’re taking it all back.”
To some observers that sounded like gibberish and matters became even more confusing when the US State Department declared it was not aware of any decision to withdraw from Syria. The Pentagon referred questions to the White House.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron promised robust support to an SDF delegation visiting Elysee Palace. The official readout said the support was “in particular in stabilising the security zone in north-eastern Syria, to prevent the resurgence of [the Islamic State (ISIS)] while awaiting a political solution to the Syrian conflict.”
Macron said he hoped France could facilitate dialogue between the SDF and Turkey. Le Figaro reported that France was preparing to send special forces to the Manbij area.
Erdogan was quick to slam Paris. He revealed that he had a row with Macron on the phone. “I noticed he was uttering some strange things,” Erdogan said, apparently angry Macron had hosted the SDF at the palace. “I had to respond in a higher frequency. Those who host terror organisations should know that this is a hostile act to us and the offer on mediation is not this person’s place. We don’t need your mediation.”
The war of words continued until early March 30 when there was violence on the ground. Reports came in of a deadly ambush by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) on Turkish village guards in Eruh district in Turkey’s south-eastern Siirt province. It was the first PKK attack on Turkish soil in a long time.
Turkey’s village guards are basically a civilian militia and Eruh is significant. That was where the PKK launched its violent campaign in 1984. The symbolism, if any, of the events is open to interpretation but tensions between the Kurds and Ankara are rising.
How to read a puzzling series of events? There are certain points to note. Although Trump may have been speaking in a personal capacity when he suggested the United States was “coming out” of Syria, there is growing consensus that Turkish and American interests in Syria no longer overlap.
The United States was engaged in Syria to fight ISIS. If Trump is serious about withdrawing from Syria, it would mean the anti-ISIS mission has ended. If so, what will happen to the SDF, which was built to take on the jihadists?
Perhaps Trump thinks it is time for the Europeans to assume more responsibility in Syria. After all, it is Europe more than the United States that has suffered from the consequences of Syria’s civil war. It is Europe that may become a magnet for Kurds because of their rising conflicts with Turkey.
No matter what happens with the anti-ISIS coalition, the impasse on northern Syria continues and it keeps Turkey more aligned with Russia than with NATO.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are becoming increasingly aware that their golden age of prominence was short-lived.