Ankara’s hopes for military-political cooperation with Washington in Syria

Turkey may be facing next serious changes in its Syrian policy: Ankara’s hopes for military-political cooperation with Washington may have come to their bitter end. The decision of US President Donald Trump to pull out American troops from Syria in the near future may cause serious adjustments not only to Turkish plans to combat the terrorist threat along its borders, but also to Turkey's approach to resolving the Syrian crisis. Whether Turkey will be able to realize its ambitions in northern Syria in the conditions of increased unpredictability and without reliance on its ally is hard to tell.

End of 2018 was for something indicative of American-Turkish relations: the Turkish leadership, like many times before, again threatened to launch yet another military operation with the support of 15,000 Syrian militants in northern Syria to seize the Kurdish controlled Manbij. The White House, in turn, in order to restore a positive dialogue with its key NATO ally in the region and fill the agenda of bilateral relations with positive content, finally gave the green light to the deal on the sale of  the Patriot air defense system. However, US authorities made yet another call on the Turkish side to cancel the purchase of more modern S-400 air-defence systems from Russia.

Watching how the relations of Ankara and Washington from the format of ideological partnership are increasingly turning into a forced marriage of convenience, plunging into an atmosphere of constant bargaining, exchange and blackmail, it is impossible not to notice that the Turkish government continues to believe in the possibility of cooperation with the US in northern Syria. Until recently, Turkish politicians continued to carry out plans to create a political model on the territory controlled by the United States, which could become a serious alternative to the Syrian central government in an important transitional period.

At the same time, Turkish side is trying to convince its American partners to abandon the support of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party. For Ankara, the PYD is just a Syrian branch of the Turkish terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party , and its close military cooperation with the United States, as top-level Turkish officials have said, may negatively affect the security of Turkey itself in the future, given the permeability of borders in the region and tons of arms in the hands of the Syrian Kurds. As an alternative to the PYD, Turkey offers its assistance both in the fight against the remnants of ISIL, and in the matters of subsequent stabilization in the vast territories along the Euphrates .

But the decision of Donald Trump to withdraw the American contingent from Northern Syria could potentially make serious adjustments to Turkey’s long-term plans. While Erdogan writes articles in the New York Times with calls for the Americans to return to the idea of ​​joint cooperation in Syria, the Turkish military and advisers are puzzled over how not to get involved in another risky adventure without the US Air Force umbrella. After all, this may weaken its position, including in dialogue with Russia and Iran.

As can be seen from the statements of the American leadership, the withdrawal of troops will be carried out for several months, and the task of fighting ISIS will be placed on Turkey’s shoulders. At the same time, the US military will be able to carry out limited operations from the territory of neighboring Iraq. But the Turkish side is worried about the lack of a more specific road map.

Despite the fact that the decision itself on the withdrawal of troops means a reduction in the level of US cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey fears potential pitfalls. The biggest concern is that the withdrawal decision is not consistent with US long-term plans in the region. The decision also does not reflect the opinion of the  leadership of the Pentagon and the US Central Command - departments skeptical of the strengthening of the role of Turkey in Syria.

It would seem that Trump gave Turkey a carte blanche to conduct an operation against the militants of the Party of the Democratic Union, which the US has armed and trained since 2016. But even in the question of the struggle of Turkey against the Syrian Kurds, there is a frightening uncertainty. Even if Turkey decides to launch an operation to clean up the Syrian border from unfriendly forces, as Ankara has promised many times, the scale of the necessary intervention will entail losses among Turkish military personnel. The war against the Syrian Kurds could turn into an anti-partisan operation for individual fortified areas at great depths with an uncertain front line. In addition, the success of the operation may be undermined by possible clashes with the Syrian government forces.

More generally, the failure of a large-scale operation, to which the United States invites its Turkish partners, can curb Turkey’s political ambitions. The creation of some alternative political models to the Syrian government , to which the Turkish leadership in the territories under its control, seeks, above all, long-term stability through the provision of security by local militia and the development of civil infrastructure. How Turkey intends to do this is not clear, since we are talking about Kurdish territories where anti-Turkish sentiments are extremely strong.

It can be assumed that the decision of Trump has a twofold goal. First, the White House wants to pacify Ankara on the eve of the local elections in Turkey, to which the ruling party is forced to go in alliance with the nationalists. The desire to attract the voices of nationalists against the background of the next operation on the border of the Turkish leadership is stronger than ever. Now Turkey is forced to negotiate with the United States about a new format of cooperation in Syria, which postpones the prospects of a large-scale Turkish operation for several months.

On the other hand, Trump's decision sends a signal to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party about the need to build more adequate relations with the region, primarily with Turkey. It is about trying to turn the Syrian Kurds into a politically acceptable force for the Turks. The decision on the withdrawal of American troops should encourage the Party of the Democratic Union, whose political positions in recent years have been strengthened in parallel with the military successes against ISIL and the growing American help, refuse to cooperate with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party, recognize the principle of non-interference in Turkey’s internal affairs and cooperate with other Syrian opposition parties.

The priority for Turkey now is the question of the transfer of Manbij to the pro-Turkish local forces. The city itself remained for a long time the subject of sharp disagreements between Ankara and Washington. With the decision of Trump, Turkey can push its draft of the peaceful transfer of a large settlement from the hands of the Democratic Union to the local council. In addition, control over the city will provide an opportunity to gradually penetrate deep into the territories of the Syrian Euphrates territories, the ultimate goal of which can be Turkish control over the important strategic highway M4, which runs from the Iraqi border to Aleppo along the entire border.

It is assumed that the withdrawal of American troops from the city will open the way for Turkish troops. But at the same time, Turkey, as recent visits of the Turkish delegation to Moscow show , arises the need to coordinate actions with the Russian side. Perhaps this is Trump's plan: to make the question of the fate of the city a topic of relations between Moscow and Ankara, which could potentially split the relations between the allies.

Formally, Russia calls on Turkey to adhere to the Sochi and Astana agreements, according to which any operations should be indirectly coordinated with Damascus. Informally, as Turks admit, Manbij is becoming a bargaining subject, in which Russia demands concessions from the Turkish side on other, more important issues. It is possible that the constructive position of Moscow and Ankara, which focused on the negotiations, will contribute to solving the more pressing issue for the Russian-Turkish dialogue in Syria, but the topic of the presence of the same Democratic Party in Tel-Rifat that is little discussed in the Russian press.

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