Turkey’s Syria gambit show U.S. responds to threats and strength

Ankara deployed military forces and boasted that it would soon launch a military attack.

By
August 9, 2019 05:58
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, October 23, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/TUMAY BERKIN)

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. Ankara deployed military forces and boasted that it would soon launch a military attack.

It claimed to have told Russia – from which 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 crisis, one fueled by Turkey’s own timeline, where it dictates to Washington when the next mini-crisis will erupt. In the fall of 2018, the NATO member 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: US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from Syria.

Just like that, the US 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. Anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk and former defense secretary James Mattis left abruptly because of the change. Turkey was dictating to Washington what to do in Syria.

And this was just like 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 resettling millions of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni Arabs who have fled other areas bombarded by the regime of Bashar Assad, in the mostly Kurdish areas of eastern Syria.

Then the crisis ended. The US stayed in Syria. Turkey had elections. People forgot about the crisis and the decision to withdraw. Instead, the US reduced some forces after defeating the last major pockets of ISIS resistance in March.

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 toward displaced persons camps to reconstitute the ISIS network.

NOW, in the summer of 2019, the crisis with Ankara begins again. It was just in time, because the March elections were over and a rerun of the Istanbul election was completed in June. Since Turkey now needs another reason to get people to rally around the flag, a new military operation in eastern Syria is on the table.

Back are the news reports of a  “peace corridor”, 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, while diplomats scrambled to find compromise. This comes just after Ankara began taking 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 into the picture than to heat up the Syria issue, so that the S-400 issue is forgotten and 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 having been allies with the US since the 1950s. It has watched US policy in the region and it understands – just as Iran, 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 bargaining strategy: Talk big about a big offensive, when the 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 Washington agreed to around Manbij, another area where Turkey threatened to launch an operation, the US now agrees to the “rapid implementation” of steps to address Turkey’s concerns. 

America 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.”

Washington 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 it 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 there. 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 that the Assad regime will remain in power, while Turkey works with Russia, which is the 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 it 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 with Turkey as the dominate player in the Middle East. In fact, Ankara’s ruling party says that the issue of eastern Syria is designed to create regional and global peace. A peace on Ankara’s terms, that is.

It remains to be seen what lessons Turkey has 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 at any time. 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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