The lay of the land in Syria has changed since the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Turkish-backed operation on Jarablus started on Aug. 24.
To be fair, what made the Euphrates Shield operation possible was Turkey’s successful reestablishment of diplomatic dialogue. As such, it started as an operation based upon a more or less agreed to framework among the parties involved in the Syrian conflict.
As the length of the operation increases, however, the criticisms seem to be growing louder.
When one adds in the fluid situation on the ground, the nature of the combatants, the different priorities of the countries supporting the groups and other factors – particularly in the event that the operation’s objectives are widened and its duration extended – there is a great risk that Turkey might be dragged into the Syrian quagmire.
At present, officials have stated that the primary objective of the operation is to cut the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) supply lines and remove it from the border area. But it is a secret to no one that the strategic goal of the mission is to prevent the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) from seizing this ISIL-free zone.
The straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Euphrates Shield is concerned was that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is the YPG, demonstrated their intention to continue marching west of the Euphrates after taking Manbij, despite U.S. guarantees to Ankara to the contrary.
The establishment of an independent Kurdish state along the border following the unification of the Jazeera and Kobane cantons with that of Afrin in the west has long been Turkey’s red line, and it’s not hard to suggest that the lessons drawn from the emergence of a Kurdish northern Iraq and distrust of the U.S. pushed Turkey to take the initiative.
The intensification in clashes between the U.S.-backed SDF and the Turkish-backed FSA will only serve to deepen the crisis with Washington that was exacerbated by the failed July 15 coup. As a matter of fact, the statements from Washington confirmed these worries. Behind the message to ISIL lies a U.S. fear that it will lose a ground force that has so far proven its capacity to fight ISIL – all the more so when a possible Raqqa offensive is just around the corner.
With Turkey back in the game as a military force this time, Washington finds itself in a tougher position, having to choose between Ankara and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). In line with this, dividing the areas of responsibility for each of the groups on the ground and keeping promises beforehand are likely to reduce the tension.
For Turkey, the critical part, in essence, will be to maintain the gains won by Euphrates Shield in the long term, without becoming ensconced in the civil war.
The Turkish-backed FSA contains radical groups with ideologies identical to ISIL, and its battlefield record is far from glorious. There is reason to doubt its future performance against ISIL, the YPG and regime forces unless the FSA is supported both in terms of quantity and quality.
On the other hand, the question of how to protect the zone cleansed of ISIL remains unclear due to NATO’s unwillingness to intervene out of concern for Russia’s reaction, as well as the lack of desire in the U.S. to alter its policies on Syria so close to the presidential election.
And as for maintaining red lines, any new cross-border operations run the risk of creating deeper problems as long as the Kurdish issue, which has acquired international dimensions, is not resolved.
In this context, the U.S. might play a constructive role by mediating a cease-fire between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), even though peace seems so distant today. Putting pressure on the PKK to de-escalate violence should not be that hard when Washington is able to lean on the YPG to withdraw east of the Euphrates. This, for one, would ensure the smoother functioning of the cooperation against ISIL.
The chorus of pronouncements about “maintaining territorial integrity” in Syria is not just empty talk. In this, it is important to properly recognize the message being sent to the Syrian Kurds who have declared a federation and the PKK as it intensifies its violence in Turkey on the back of the YPG’s territorial gains in Syria.