The dynamics in Syria are fast changing. Prospects for a much needed solution to this devastating conflict have most recently been voiced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who, in their last meeting in Geneva, conceded that there must be a political rather than military solution in order to stop the bloodshed in Syria. Ironically, this announcement came just two days after the onset of Turkey’s military offensive in Syria.
Though both Kerry and Lavrov were hesitant to make any bold statements regarding a comprehensive agreement on Syria, they confidently announced the reduction in the number of points of disagreement between the U.S. and Russia. Most prominent of which is the status of Bashar al-Assad following any prospective end to the civil war.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) along with members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), entered Syrian territory on Wednesday. The operation, codenamed “Euphrates Shield”, aimed to dislodge IS militants from the strategic town of Jarablus, as well as to stall the advancement of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
This dual-purpose operation appears to have been successful. Following Turkey’s troop deployment, IS militants swiftly fled the town, the last IS stronghold close to the Turkish border. Further, during his visit to Turkey, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave a rather austere warning to the YPG to retreat back to the east bank of the Euphrates River or else lose Washington’s support.
Yet with the unprecedented and potentially volatile involvement of Turkish ground troops in Syria, mass aerial mobilization and Turkish advancement on areas held by Kurdish forces, a political solution such as that proposed by Kerry and Lavrov may be too distant a goal, at least for now.
A clever move
Some political analysts say the operation was an excellent opportunity for Turkey to showcase the prowess of the TSK, the second biggest army in NATO. There has been widespread questioning of the TSK following the attempted coup of July 15, and subsequent arrest of around half of Turkey’s Generals in the post-coup clampdown. An operation of this magnitude would go some way to dispelling such questions.
There appears to be initial substance to claims of showcasing regarding the timing of this operation and its implementation. Some reports have suggested that U.S. air-force support has been rendered non-operational during the operation, leaving Turkey to pursue its strategic objectives in the region unilaterally. However, Mr. Erdoğan may be considering something else entirely.
One Turkish bureaucrat claimed that “The Turkish government has been working on a ground incursion for more than two years. We came close to putting boots on the ground there for over two years. In June 2015, Turkey discussed with coalition allies, including the United States, the possibility of a ground incursion to liberate Jarablus from the jihadists,” adding that “certain commanders within the military worked to stall Turkey’s plan to move against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).”
This may in fact be a clever move by President Erdoğan to connect the Gülen movement with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian counterpart, the YPG. These statements indicate that the Gülen movement was lenient towards Kurdish advancement in northern Syria and indifferent to the security threats posed by IS. By connecting these groups, Erdoğan has in essence reduced the number of threats down to one, aimed at appeasing the fears of Turkish people.
Whatever the reason might be for the timing of the operation, be it showcasing following the removal of TSK Generals who have links with FETÖ, or the growing rapprochement between Turkey and Russia following the St. Petersburg meeting, emboldened by the rapid conquest of Syrian towns from IS by the TSK and TSK-backed FSA, Joe Biden has confirmed that the U.S. will not jeopardize its strategic alliance with Turkey for the sake of Kurdish militants, despite their decisive role in fighting the Islamic State.
This very clear signal from U.S. that the role of the YPG may be nearing its expiry date. However, given the YPG’s crucial status in the fight against IS, this move may backfire if the group feels it is being used by the U.S., with Kurdish interests abandoned in this ever volatile and intractable conflict.
Neither the U.S. nor Russia foresee an independent Kurdish state in Syria’s future. The balance of power-play the U.S. continues to employ between Turkey and the YPG will likely further exacerbate instability in northern Syria.
A political solution: How?
The Russians have expressed deep concern over the most recent escalation of conflict. Iran also remains skeptical of the Turkish offensive, claiming that the operation needed to be coordinated with the Syrian regime. EU member states and the U.S. on the other hand have expressed their support for the Jarablus operation.
Iran’s suggestion of the need for coordination was reiterated by Russia’s Lavrov during the Geneva meeting last Friday. Lavrov explicitly stated that there are only two legitimate foreign powers who have the state’s consent to operate within Syria’s borders: Russia and Iran. It was a tacit message to those who want to undermine the Syrian regime under the pretext of fighting terrorism, including Turkey and the YPG.
If the prospective Syrian peace agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia, who achieved “clarity on the path forward” during the last Geneva meeting, fails, the presence of Turkish troops in Syria may put a swift end to Ankara’s tentative rapprochement with Russia, equally preventing Turkey from enjoying any possible fruits from its labor in Jarablus. Russia is as adamant as ever in securing the future of the Assad regime. Turkey on the other hand has only recently acknowledged Assad as a stake holder in the Syrian crises, and still does not want to see him in Syria’s future.
Russia’s attitude towards the YPG will be another determinant complicating any prospective solution to this crisis. If, based on Turkish rapprochement, Russia were to change its position on the YPG – which so far has been largely cooperative in the fight against IS – that would massively reduce the YPG’s maneuverability in northern Syria. Given the enduring military capacity of both the YPG and the Assad regime, it’s clear that the process of finding a lasting role for both must be expedited if a viable political solution to stop the bloodbath in Syria is really to be found.