Turkey stumbles in Syria but claims victory any way

Sunday 23/04/2017
Abrupt end. Rebel fighters, part of the Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield alliance, are seen near the city of al-Bab, last February. (AFP)

London - Turkey’s declaration of the end of its Operation Eu­phrates Shield in north­ern Syria was as unex­pected as the justification was unconvincing. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim described the cross-border incursion as “suc­cessful”, suggesting the mission was accomplished but that is not the case.
Declaring success was a face-sav­ing way to wrap up an operation launched on August 24, 2016, that had reached the limits of what it could achieve, not what it wanted to, partly because of Russia, which with Iran keeps Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.
After Turkish-backed Syrian re­bels captured the northern city of al-Bab from the Islamic State (ISIS) in February, Ankara said the next goal would be to take Manbij from Kurdish forces, then on to the op­eration’s apex: Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, to the south-east.
Neither goal has been achieved and the operation’s conclusion was announced about a month after the capture of al-Bab, the mission’s last major victory. Had al-Bab signified “mission accomplished”, it would have been declared then.
Capturing the city has put Turk­ish-backed Syrian rebels face to face with regime forces, against which they would have to fight to progress further south. Deadly clashes have already taken place and were ended only by Russian mediation.
A senior Russian official said the town of Tadef to the south marked an agreed dividing line between the two sides. Despite Turkish- Russian rapprochement, Moscow would not countenance Ankara abandoning the agreement and taking on regime forces, which are heavily backed by Russia.
Turkey, long one of Assad’s main opponents, would not want to jeopardise the rapprochement or the diplomatic process and the ceasefire of a sort in Syria it co-brokered with Russia in Decem­ber. Nor would Ankara want to risk engaging forces that may include Russian personnel.
Meanwhile, the rapproche­ment has seen a softening of An­kara’s rhetoric against Damascus. All these factors would preclude a Turkish-backed rebel advance against the regime.
Operation Euphrates Shield faced a similar problem vis-à-vis the Kurds. Manbij was, until March, controlled by the Syrian Democrat­ic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-domi­nated alliance that is backed by the United States. Washington sees it as its most reliable allied ground force in Syria against ISIS and had embedded special forces with the SDF in Manbij, a strategic prize on the path to capturing Raqqa. As such, regardless of Turkish hos­tility towards Kurdish ambitions in Syria, trying to capture Manbij before March would have meant taking on a US ally and potentially American forces.
Ankara would not consider this under any circumstances, let alone when it is trying to reset relations with the United States under Presi­dent Donald Trump. Stymying Turkish designs against the SDF, particularly over Manbij, was likely a factor in embedding US forces with the group.
In March, the SDF, whose Kurd­ish element is supported not just by the United States but also by Russia, agreed to hand Manbij to the Assad regime. From then, Op­eration Euphrates Shield would have faced the same constraints with Manbij as it did beyond al-Bab regarding the regime.
Concerning Raqqa, Ankara had been strenuously lobbying the United States since 2016 to exclude Kurdish forces from the unfolding offensive against the city. Turkish hopes that Trump would be more amenable than his predecessor were dashed in March.
The timing of the announcement ending Operation Euphrates Shield was likely to do with a statement by the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia ear­lier in March that the Raqqa assault would begin in early April and that it would be taking part.
This left Ankara with three op­tions: Join the assault even with Kurdish involvement, which would be unacceptable; keep Operation Euphrates Shield in place but not include it in the Raqqa assault, which would make Turkey look im­potent; or claim prior to the assault that the operation had come to a successful end.
The third option, while uncon­vincing, was not as bad as the oth­ers, but it has laid bare Turkey’s limited room to manoeuvre mili­tarily in Syria.