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Alex Rowell

What Turkey’s intervention suggests about Syria’s future

Ankara has faced an intriguing lack of resistance from its traditional adversaries in Syria over its Euphrates Shield operation

Turkish army tanks and pro-Ankara Syrian opposition fighter trucks positioned two kilometers west from the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarablus on August 24, 2016. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Much sport has been made in the last 48 hours over the latest fiasco in northern Syria. For those who missed it, rebel groups opposed to ISIS got into a firefight south of the border town of Jarablus on Sunday with Kurdish militants belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also fights ISIS, culminating in the capture of four SDF fighters, who were then paraded, handcuffed and half-naked on their knees, on video footage quickly bounced around social media. The fact that both groups are backed by the United States (the rebels by the CIA; the SDF by the Pentagon) made it an almost perfect illustration, on a micro scale, of the kinds of contradiction and incoherence that characterize Washington’s Syria strategy overall at the macro level.

 

The cock-up was all the more remarkable for having arisen from a plan that’s been in the works since the spring of 2015, according to a Wall Street Journal report yesterday. For over a year, the US has been fine-tuning the details of Turkey’s coveted intervention in north Syria, which it finally launched last week; vetting the rebel groups to be deployed on the ground and calibrating the type and quantity of air support it would itself contribute. All the while, Washington has also been arming the SDF, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), reviled by Ankara as an allegedly “terrorist” outfit linked to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and – just to make things easier – implicated in abuses including ethnic cleansing against Syrian Arabs under its authority.

 

Challenging as it no doubt was to juggle all of this, the US had managed to avoid open warfare between its proxies until the SDF captured the town of Manbij from ISIS on August 12. While the defeat of the jihadists was understandably hailed by US officials, the presence of the SDF in Manbij alarmed Ankara, which had long viewed a Kurdish advance west of the River Euphrates as a red line. Knowing this well, the US demanded the SDF retreat eastward, vowing to cut American aid if they did not. The YPG, whose officials have expressed intent to link their canton in Kobane, east of the Euphrates, with that of Afrin, more than 100km west of Manbij, appeared to have other ideas. When a suspected ISIS suicide bomber killed over 50 at a wedding in south Turkey’s Gaziantep on August 20, Turkey seized the opportunity to make its move, launching the suggestively-named ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ against both ISIS (whom it swiftly booted out of Jarablus) and the YPG.

 

Having effectively given Turkey a green light by publicly reprimanding the SDF for staying in Manbij, the US had to suddenly scramble to tell everyone to “stand down” and “deconflict” when Turkish-backed rebels began trying to force the Kurdish militants back over the river. As of yesterday, all YPG forces had at last slunk east of the water, according to a Pentagon official, which presumably brings this spat to an end, for the moment.

 

Or so one hopes, anyway, for it goes without saying this is all immensely unhelpful, not to mention dangerous. It’s long been plain to see that neither ISIS nor the Assad regime can be kept out of northern Syria permanently without some sort of modus vivendi between the rebels and the Kurds. ISIS knows this, which is why it does everything in its power to prevent such accord taking hold. The fact it didn’t even take two weeks from the liberation of Manbij for petty ethnic squabbling to break out into clashes scarcely inspires confidence in Syria’s short-term future. As if to make the point themselves, ISIS reportedly exploited the chaos to launch a counterattack south of the city yesterday, capturing two villages.

 

What other conclusions can be drawn from Turkey’s intervention? The first and most obvious is there will be no united Rojava any time soon. Ankara is sealing its fate with fire and steel as we speak, and it has the stated consent of the world’s only superpower to do so. Needless to add, neither Damascus nor Tehran has any intention of seeing the Kurdish statehood project succeed either.

 

Indeed, Euphrates Shield has almost been more conspicuous for what it hasn’t produced – namely, any meaningful resistance from Turkey’s state adversaries in Syria. Quite to the contrary, Russia gave explicit assurances to Ankara in early August that it wouldn’t stand in the way of the intervention, according to the aforementioned Journal report. Turkey’s own deputy prime minister said yesterday Damascus was indirectly notified of the incursion in advance. Lebanon’s Assafir newspaper went further, claiming Ankara and Damascus were on the verge of a “deal” that would see the former “back off” Aleppo city in return for the latter’s endorsement of the Euphrates Shield operation. Even if you don’t buy that – which you almost certainly shouldn’t – it’s interesting that a pro-Assad publication would suddenly wish to present the dictator as collaborating with arch-foe Erdoğan.

 

But then again, is Erdoğan still anyone’s arch-foe (besides the Kurds)? Recall three things Turkey has done since March. It has patched things up with Moscow, apologizing for shooting down a Russian fighter jet over south Turkey last year. It has patched things up with Israel, whose prime minister apologized to Erdoğan for the killing of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. These two mean, among other things, that a Turkish-Russian-Israeli triumvirate now looms over the Levant (since Russia and Israel were already friendly). And there have even been signs of Turkey patching things up with Tehran, with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif meeting his Turkish counterpart in Ankara earlier this month and pledging to “work and cooperate” on Syria. Whatever differences remain between Turkey and all of the above, it’s clear that every major state holding the reins in the Syrian conflict is content to let Turkey have this one, as it were.

 

Perhaps there’s nothing more to that than common hostility to Kurdish statehood. Perhaps, though, one could be forgiven for reading a little further into it. Perhaps one could go as far as to hypothesize that we’re beginning to see the gradually emerging outline of, not quite the partition, but the de facto segregation of Syria into regions or ‘spheres’ of external influence. Increasingly, it seems, the north is agreed to be Turkey’s terrain, excepting limited pockets of Kurdish quasi-autonomy and the western half of Aleppo city. The coast and Damascus, for their part, ‘belong’ to Iran and Russia, while the south is predominantly Saudi Arabia’s, with shares held by Jordan and an Israeli veto on the Golan Heights. This is no doubt a gross simplification, but if and when the day comes a Syrian Taif Agreement is eventually penned, it’s hard to see – much as one wishes to – how it won’t be based on something approximating these lamentable terms. 

Turkish army tanks and pro-Ankara Syrian opposition fighter trucks positioned two kilometers west from the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarablus on August 24, 2016. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

It’s long been plain to see that neither ISIS nor the Assad regime can be kept out of northern Syria permanently without some sort of modus vivendi between the rebels and the Kurds. ISIS knows this, which is why it does everything in its power to prevent such accord taking hold.