Turkey is cementing its role as a key decision maker in Syria, along with Russia and Iran. Turkey’s ongoing campaign against US-allied Kurdish forces is the beginning of a drawn-out conflict that will prolong the civil war for years and severely damage US influence in Syria.
As the Assad regime recaptures more of its territory in Syria, thanks in part to Russian air support and Iranian-provided ground troops, many are coming to believe that the Syrian civil war is winding down.
However, Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, an attempt to clear out Kurdish fighters from the northern town of Afrin, is illustrative of the new face of the conflict.
Despite the Assad regime reaffirming its presence throughout the country and the Islamic State (ISIS) being nearly defeated, the war will not end in 2018. Rather than winding down, the war is entering a new stage of low-intensity conflict in certain regions of the country, with great potential to escalate into a direct confrontation between regional powers like Russia, Iran, Turkey, or the United States. As these powers and their proxies scramble to cement their control over key areas and protect their respective interests, the US is losing its only hand left in Syria due to the actions of a NATO ally.
Operation Olive Branch, the latest Turkish incursion into northern Syria, launched earlier this month, is part of a major campaign to create a 30 km. “security zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. After achieving its objective of pushing back 8,000-10,000 YPG fighters and their affiliates from Afrin, Turkey plans to continue its operations eastward, deeper into Kurdish-held territory. Turkish air campaigns have already begun in the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij, roughly 100 kilometers east of Afrin. Nearly 2,000 US military personnel are embedded within YPG units in this area, having been placed there to act as a deterrent to any potential Iranian, Russian, or Turkish attack on the YPG. This has been successful thus far; no major power has risked attacking the US forces.
American military officials announced shortly before the beginning of the Turkish operation their desire to create a 30,000-member security force with which to provide security and stability in northern Syria along the Turkish border. The overall objective of the US, as it was stated, was to prevent the reemergence of ISIS in that area. Turkey has been calling for a buffer zone along its border with Syria since 2012. Now, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the US of attempting to establish a “terror state” along its border.
Erdogan is determined to prevent northern Syria from becoming a YPG stronghold from which terrorist attacks can be launched into Turkey by the PKK, an internationally recognized Kurdish terrorist group with which Turkey has been at war with for decades. Kurdish-controlled Syria is a relatively stable part of the country, and many Syrians sought refuge there from some of the major cities, such as Aleppo, Homs and Daraa, during earlier points in the war.
The YPG and PYD want regional autonomy in a federalized Syria.
Currently, they control nearly a quarter of Syrian territory, including some of the country’s finest farmland and the crucial Tabqa dam. A renewed Turkish campaign to thin out Kurdish forces in northern Syria, especially with the consent of Russia and the US, such as this one, will lead to future humanitarian crises, and will further prolong the war.
THE US no longer has a significant role in deciding the future of Syria. The only allies on which it can rely are YPG units in the north, and through its silence and tacit approval Washington is allowing Turkey to severely weaken their forces. Washington’s response to this operation was very telling of its capabilities to control the situation. The classic “exercise restraint” remark demonstrates the lack of US influence with Turkey, now a much more powerful and influential player in Syria.
Also, the US State Department spokesperson urged Turkey to avoid diverting resources from the fight against ISIS, which the US may or may not naively believe is still the top priority in Syria. The last remnants of ISIS are either kept at bay along Israel’s Golan border or are being defeated in the southeast, along the border with Iraq, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and related forces.
Turkey has replaced the US as the de facto representative of the Syrian opposition forces on the diplomatic stage. It holds significant influence over the Syrian National Army, a collection of former Free Syrian Army militias and Islamist groups. Turkey has been negotiating on their behalf in Astana, Kazakhstan, directly with Iran and Russia, which represent the interests of the Assad regime.
However, Turkey’s interests don’t represent those of the opposition forces which it is representing. Turkey has now prioritized weakening the Kurds and securing its border over regime change, the primary objective of the FSA and Islamist groups which Turkey oversees. By directly engaging with the Russians and Iranians in Astana, Turkey has become a major decision maker in Syria, excluding the US.
In Astana, these major powers agreed on “de-escalation zones” without US input, which led to them being criticized by Israel, citing concerns of Iranian presence too close for comfort near the Golan Heights. This deal also allowed Turkey access to rebel-held Idlib, gaining it more strategic influence. With exception to the YPG units in the north, the US has lost virtually all influence in the country via proxy groups and lacks any political leverage in the negotiations or peace talks.
Iran, Russia and Turkey all have conflicting interests in Syria.
Turkey’s main objective is to create a buffer zone in the north, securing its border and breaking down Kurdish forces. Ideally, in the long term, Turkey would like to annex parts of northern Syria, to ensure that it never becomes a YPG or PKK stronghold. Turkey would accept a federalized Syria or other political resolution to the conflict, so long as the Kurds do not receive autonomy.
Russia would also settle for a political resolution, which it has been attempting to negotiate for years now. Russia does not want to repeat the mistakes of the US in the Middle East and find itself caught in endless occupation and a quagmire conflict. Russia and Turkey have been working to achieve a political solution, and the US has not been included.
Iran, however, has invested far more capital, resources and manpower than either of these two powers. Iran has worked tirelessly to gain the presence it now holds in southwest Syria approaching the borders of Israel and Lebanon, and will not give it up. Iran will also not stop short of a total military victory in the country, complicating things for Russia, Turkey and the US, which all desire a political resolution soon.
In addition to softening up on Russian interests in the Syrian peace talks, Turkey has made major defense and trade agreements with Russia.
Turkey recently agreed to purchase Russia’s well-known S-400 missile defense system. By gaining strategic ground in Syria and embarking on a prolonged campaign against the US’s only reliable forces in the country, Turkey has replaced the US as the dominant player on the side of the opposition. This is due in part to the dynamics of the war changing over the years.
Regional ambitions have changed, and alliances have shifted. Nearly all the prominent anti-government voices and leaders calling for regime change have disappeared. There is no unified opposition force which could possibly overthrow and replace the current regime, even without Russian or Iranian intervention. For the regional powers, defeating ISIS was the easy part. It was the only thing in the Syrian conflict which they could all see as a common enemy. But now that ISIS is nearly defeated, the Turks have refocused on the Kurds, the last reliable US ally in Syria.
The power makers in Syria are now Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The US must adopt a tougher stance against Turkish operations in Kurdish-controlled territories, or it will no longer have a say at all in the future of Syria.
The author is a student at Western Michigan University. He studies international and comparative politics and Arabic, with a focus on Middle East policy.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.