By Jim Carey
October 14, 2019
The situation surrounding Syria is proving to be as complicated as ever as day six of Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria comes to a close. Despite the initial claims by United States President Donald Trump that US forces would be leaving Syria, there now seems to be some confusion on where exactly Washington stands.
Over the past several days, the Turkish-backed rebels known as the Syrian National Army (SNA) backed by Turkish troops have made quick advances into several areas formerly controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
The SDF is an umbrella organization primarily composed of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which is led by members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK, a Kurdish national liberation organization, is labelled a “terrorist” group by not only the Erdogan regime in Turkey but also by U.S. imperialism and NATO. Related: Trump Outsources Syria Destabilization to Turkey in Bid to Ease Tensions
Over the past several years, as most readers here will know, the US has given support to the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria (after the US had realized IS was out of its control). This has obviously always been a problem to Turkey and it was well known that Turkish President Recep Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and most of the Turkish government has long been seeking for Washington to cut ties with the YPG and allow Turkey, a NATO member, to take control of the “fight against IS”.
While we could debate how effective Turkey, practically a partner with IS at one point, would have been in this fight, the real issue now is what is happening between Turkey and the YPG. As of the writing of this article, the SNA and Turkish military has taken back multiple areas right along the Syrian border including the villages of Tal Abyad (where SNA fighters have posted pictures) and (allegedly) Ras al-Ayn (although rebel media outlets have not shown much footage from here). Turkish media has also claimed that the Turkish operation has also secured the crucial M4 motorway that runs east to west from Idlib to the Iraqi border and is a supply line for the YPG, although this hasn’t been widely reported.
As the first few days of Operation Peace Spring heated up and the Turks almost shelled US troops, Washington made it clear they wanted no role in the fight between Turkey and the YPG leaving the Kurds with the only option they’ve ever really had to get out of the hole they dug themselves: making a deal with the government under Bashar Assad to reintegrate into the Syrian state.
“We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Assad. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”
– SDF commander General Mazlum Abdi in a recent Op-Ed
With the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) – backed by Russia – entering into the conflict to protect the areas formerly under the control of the YPG it would seem that this fight would be over. Since Turkey is currently a member of the Astana peace group with Syrian allies Russia and Iran and Ankara is in no way looking for a fight with Moscow while the rest of Erdogan’s NATO allies are currently condemning Operation Peace Spring However, this news hasn’t seemed to stop Ankara’s plans and it now seems that despite reports the SAA is moving to help Kurdish forces in Kobani and Manbij, Turkey still plans to move forward with the next wave of its operation. [ Related: Kurds, Out of Options, Look to Syria’s Assad for Help ]
The Turkey Manbij offensive
The planned Turkish-backed SNA assault on Manbij was announced by Erdogan on Monday as he spoke to reporters before boarding a plane to Azerbaijan. According to Erdogan, Turkey had received some assurance from Russia that Moscow and Damascus would handle the YPG issue there, Erdogan told the media that “we are ready to implement the decision we have taken” in regards to Manbij.
If that wasn’t clear enough, the SNA released its own statement announcing the start of the assault on Manbij. Kurdish reports claim that the first few offensives by the SNA have been repelled by the Manbij Military Council (MMC) but it is likely there will be future offensives (possibly with heavier Turkish support).
Syria’s state news agency has reported that SAA forces are already inside the city which likely means that, should the SNA and Turks break through the YPG defenses, they will be directly facing the SAA. Turkish media claims Ankara is not concerned by this, saying the SAA is already stretched too thin and likely won’t be able to send enough support for the YPG to make a difference.
It wouldn’t be anything new for the SNA fighters to clash with the SAA, but if Turkey makes any error and hits Syrian forces, this could spark up a whole new conflict between Turkey on one side and Syria, Russia and Iran on the other. While it is unlikely this would escalate to a full-on war against Turkey, the situation could quickly escalate and light Syria on fire again. [ Related: No, Trump’s Syria Withdrawal is NOT a “Gift to Russia” ]
The good news is that the signal from Erdogan that Russia had somehow assured him an assault on Kobani is unnecessary (for now) and could be a sign that the Astana talks are producing some results. If everyone involved is genuinely seeking a way to avoid basically restarting the war in Syria, there could be a diplomatic way out of this.
The only other possible big roadblock (and it’s a huge one) is the United States.
The US policy on Syria, to sum it up, is where it has been for the last few years now: all over the place. Currently, Donald Trump is saying that he is withdrawing the approximately 1,000 US troops that were supporting the SDF but has backpedaled in the face of opposition and now says the troops will be relocated “somewhere in the region.” US forces also reported that they have already interfered in a possible conflict between the SAA and the Turks in the last 24 hours by shelling pro-Assad forces near Tabqa, Mansour, and in Khasham.
While this is all happening, Trump himself – who green-lit Turkey’s operation – has suddenly done a 180 in the face of opposition at home and is now suddenly in a rush to prove he is tough on Turkey. Last week when Turkey’s operation began Trump tweeted a threat to “destroy” Turkey’s economy if he didn’t approve of the way they conducted their illegal invasion, which…surprise! Nobody did.
Now it seems Trump is making good on his threat to wage an economic war on Turkey and has issued new tariffs on Turkish steel as well as pausing negotiations between Washington and Ankara on a $100 billion trade pact. The European Union has also joined in and threatened an embargo on Turkey (but it is unclear how hard Europe can push with Erdogan publicly threatening to release over 3 million refugees into the EU). [ Related: Top 29 Turkey Geopolitics Reading Essentials List [Link Dump] ]
Turkey now seems isolated in its operation in Syria and has been stripped of most of the pretense for the offensive now that the legal Syrian authorities have taken over the administration of areas previously controlled by the YPG. Turkey’s best hope is to continue communication with Russia, which the Kremlin assured reporters is ongoing although Moscow has warned Turkey to make sure their operation is “proportionate.” If Turkey is wise, they’ll take this out being offered by Moscow and leave Syria with dignity, but with the SNA hanging around, this is easier said than done.