Turkey’s Syria gambit show US responds to threats and strength
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
For several days Turkey did what it has done before, it threatened to launch a military operation against partners of the US-led coalition in Syria. Turkey deployed military forces and boasted that it would soon launch a military attack. It claimed to have told Moscow, where it has recently purchased the S-400 missile system, about its plans, and to have told the Americans.
This sent the US scrambling to find a way out of the crises, a crises fueled by Turkey’s own timeline where Ankara dictates to Washington when the next mini-crises will erupt. In the fall of 2018 Ankara had done the same thing, threatening to attack eastern Syria, mobilizing Syrian rebel groups, and clashing with border posts of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main US partner in eastern Syria. Washington responded and US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from Syria in December 2018.
Just like that the US ostensibly decided to fold up three years of a successful war against ISIS in Syria and leave. Defense officials were shocked at the sudden decision by the White House. The anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk and Defense Secretary James Mattis left abruptly because of the change. Turkey was dictating to Washington what to do in Syria. It said it would. Manage the rest of the anti-ISIS war after defeating the SDF, which it says it linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Syrian rebel groups, some of the religious extremists who hold anti-Kurdish views, were caught on video talking about invading eastern Syria. Others discussed re-settling millions of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs who have fled other areas bombarded by the Assad regime, in the mostly Kurdish areas of eastern Syria.
Then the crises ended. The US stayed in Syria. Turkey had elections. People forgot about the crises and the decision to withdraw. Instead the US reduced some forces after defeating the last major pockets of ISIS in March 2019. There is ample evidence that tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters have either ended up in the desert as sleeper cells or have gravitated towards displaced persons camps to reconstitute and ISIS network.
Now, in the summer of 2019, the crises with Ankara begins again. It was just in time because the March elections were over and the rerun of the Istanbul election was completed in June. So Turkey needs another reason to get people to rally around the flag and a new military operation in eastern Syria is on the table. Back are the news reports of a “peace corridor” and eradicating “the enemy” and tanks and soldiers being sent to the border. Once again Syrian rebels, who supposedly had signed up to fight Assad, say they are ready to go fight mostly Kurdish forces in the east.
Washington warned Turkey against a unilateral operation. But at the same time diplomats scrambled to find compromise. This comes just after Turkey began to take delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system. That isn’t a coincidence. Washington was considering how to sanction Turkey for its increasing alliance with Russia. What better way to put the US back on the backfoot than to heat up the Syria issue, so that the S-400 issue is forgotten and so that in the long run Turkey will be seen as being willing to “give in” on aspects of Syria in exchange for the S-400 being accepted in the US.
Ankara knows Washington well after being allies with the US since the 1950s. It has watched US policy in the region and it understand, just as Iran and Russia and China understand, that the US generally respects strength and that threats will result in some kind of compromise. So what Turkey did is a classic aspect of bargaining, it talks big about a big offensive, when its real goal is more limited.
So the US has now come up with yet another plan to work with Turkey on the Syria issue. Just like the “joint patrols” that the US agreed to around Manbij, another area Turkey threatened to launch an operation in, the US now agrees to the “rapid implementation” of steps to address Turkey’s concerns. The US will create a “joint operations” center in Turkey to manage the “safe zone,” a non-existent area along the Syrian border in mostly Kurdish communities that Turkey has called a “peace corridor.” The US has adopted Ankara’s language on the “peace corridor,” saying that every effort will be made so that “displaced Syrians can return to their country.”
Turkey has shown one model of what some fear it wants to do in eastern Syria with the operation in launched in Afrin in January 2018. Turkey’s leadership has said that the operation in eastern Syria builds on the completion of Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in 2018. It is the third stage and will build on the model of Turkey taking control of the entire border area dozens of kilometers deep into Syria. In Afrin Turkey claimed to be fighting the PKK and ISIS, even though there was no ISIS presence in Afrin. More than 160,000 Kurds fled Afrin and Syrian refugees who were not from Afrin were brought to the area. Since then armed militias have engaged in battles in the area and religious minorities have complained of harassment. The goal in eastern Syria is the same, to use the Syrian rebels and Syrian refugees to distract from the fact the Assad regime will remain in power, while Turkey works with Russia which is the Assad regime’s closest ally.
From Ankara’s perspective this is the best of both worlds. Get the US to eventually leave eastern Syria or at least get the US to help manage a Turkish operation into areas of eastern Syria where the pressure from Syrian refugees and armed rebel groups can be used against the SDF. This also cements closer relations with Russia which has been arguing that the US should leave eastern Syria. It also meets the needs of nationalists in Turkey who feel they have outplayed the Americans and created an independent foreign policy positioning Turkey as the dominate player in the Middle East. In fact Turkey’s ruling party says that the issue of eastern Syria is designed to create regional and global peace. A peace on Ankara’s terms?
It remains to be seen what lessons Turkey learned from this. If the US thinks it can help pave the way for Turkey to take over part of eastern Syria, that would be a major change in policy and likely wreck the US-SDF relationship. That would be a positive step for Ankara. If the US thinks it can do what it did in Manbij, have joint patrols but no real change, then that may be another model. The key will also be what Washington decides to do in the air, since Turkey would be reticent to launch an operation without its air force being able to operate unimpeded along the border. In Afrin Turkey received an agreement from Russia to launch airstrikes. It now has an agreement with the Syrian regime regarding those other areas it occupies, a shaky agreement that could collapse. But Turkey gambled it could push the US and gain influence through the S-400 with Russia. So far Ankara has played its cards well. US partners on the ground must be wondering what the latest statements about joint operations and a corridor mean. As usual though, US diplomatic statements from the State Department and what the Pentagon is doing on the ground in eastern Syria don’t seem to be in line. This is another reason the US tends to be outmaneuvered, because various parts of the US government don’t seem to agree on what to do in the long-term.
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Read Seth J. Frantzman’s new book ‘After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East,’ which covers the last four years of conflict in the region, following the defeat of ISIS and rise of US-Iran tensions, as well as the role of Turkey and other key states. Available now on Amazon.