The US has let down the Kurds once again. This had already happened in 2017 when the Iraqi Kurdistan region held an independence referendum and soon regretted it. This time, the US has paved the way for an Turkish-led operation that will undo all the gains achieved by the Kurds in their war against ISIS in northern Syria since October 2014.
“We are withdrawing, Syria is yours” had stated President Trump in December 2018. While the statement had not been realized, the US President cleared the way through a phone call yesterday – much to the Pentagon and the Secretary of State’s surprise.
Turkish President Erdoğan had made several attempts at obtaining the US President’s green light insisted and finally reached his objective. A unilateral operation will begin – not in spite of the US but with the US’ explicit blessing. That is, if Trump doesn’t change his mind once again.
The ambiguous flexibility displayed by Astana partners Russia and Iran have made Erdoğan’s job easier. The declarations made at the last trilateral summit in Ankara on September 16 gave the impression that reservation over Turkey launching an intervention had ceased.
“The Presidents emphasized their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as well as to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. The leaders also rejected all attempts to ‘create new realities’ on the ground in Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism, said the statement, likely referring to U.S. support for the terrorist YPG/PKK, ostensibly in order to fight Daesh. We re-affirm our determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as threatening the national security of neighboring countries.”
When the US had a presence in the region, going east of the Euphrates river was an option that was ‘close to impossible’ for the Syrian army and its allies. For the past two years, the US had repeatedly struck the Syrian army around Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, keeping it way from the Euphrates line. The “Turkey vs US” option also appears to serve their interests. From the standpoints of Russia and Iran, a Turkish intervention could prove sensible insofar as it leads to a US withdrawal and pushes Kurds toward Damascus.
This assent will most likely hold until such critical goals are achieved. Yet reservations over Turkey’s expanding rule in Syria remain. Thus while there is consent, certain conditions must prevail to ensure the intervention is limited, controlled and acceptable to all. The Russian radars that had been blind to American planes east of the Euphrates will probably be blind to Turkish places as well. But for how long will engagement rules function in this manner? What kind of cooperation east of the Euphrates will this bring about?
The Syrian state has declared Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a terrorist organization just as the Astana meeting was being held. This implied an expectation: “given it is difficult for us to get rid of the US and the dissolve the SDF, let’s allow Turkey to do it”, went the line of reasoning.
Since the Afrin operation, it was foreseen Russia would remain quiet about controlled and condition-bound Turkish interventions in order to allow for the Kurds to be pushed toward Damascus and the US to withdraw. I believe one should interpret these developments through such a foresight.
By devising a project within the intervention plan to build settlements for 2-3 million refugees who would return from Turkey, Erdoğan sought to guarantee Europe’s support or silence. The EU has been virtually non-existent throughout the entire process.
Turkey is expected to enter Tel Ebyad (Grê Sipî) and Re’su’l Ayn (Serekaniye) first. In these two places, heavy weaponry were used and fortications were destroyed thanks to the US founded Joint Operation Center. In other words, these doors are clear of land mines.
Where will the operation turn to after moving into these two locations? Have Erdoğan and Trump discussed depth? Everything is remains uncertain. Trump drew the line yesterday, or so he thinks, by saying “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over” So, what is the framework? Is it about making Turkey babysit the ISIS fighters that no one else will accept?
But as Trump has said, they have conferred responsibility about ISIS to Turkey, which implies he is not fussed about distances. The largest camp hosting SIS members and their families is located in Al-Hawl, southeast of Haseke. If the operation starts from Ra’su’l Ayn, the distance to Al-Hawl is almost 150 kilometers, so 96 kilometers south from Nusaybin-Kamışlı (Turkish provinces). Moreover, Turkish armed forces would need to pass through Haseke. Not only do prisons in Haseke hold fierce ISIS members, but parts of the city are under control of the Syrian army. Such geographical details are beyond Trump’s planning.
The safe zone Erdoğan described at the UN General Assembly was based on the M-4 highway. This line, 30 kilometers deep and 480 kilometers wide, includes Kobani, Tel Ebyad, Ra’su’l Eyn (Serekaniye), Dırbesiye, Amude, Kamışlı, Tirbesiyé (Kahtaniye) and Derik (Malikiye). The second region Erdoğan is looking at for the return of 2-3 million refugees goes down as far as Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.
The scope of the invasion depends on how much the Kurds will resist, how Arabs and other local populations react, what the Syrian state and its allies will do and how the US’ withdrawal strategy proceeds.
Before everything else, what matters is what strategy the Kurds will use to counter the Turkish armed forces. Until now, SDF commanders have maintained this assault will differ from Afrin and all lines will turn into fronts. Will they act according to this declaration from the first moment or give up Tel Ebyad and Ra’su’l Ayn, to wait for the next moves? Or, will they opt to transfer control to the Syrian army? That’s what Russia and Iran want.
The intervention is focused on obliterating everything the Kurds have gained and altering the area’s demographic make-up. The Kurds contend warfare is inevitable because of this. The withdrawal strategy the Kurds opted for after a while in Afrin was a result of wanting to safeguard the alliance with the US, retain the gains east of the Euphrates and protect the local population and settlements. There are no more gains for the Kurds to sacrifice.
Resistance also depends on how much Arabs and other communities in the region cooperate with the Kurds.
To what extent will the US end its partnership with the SDF is another determining factor. According to the statement from the White House, the US will neither support the operation nor protect the Kurds. But will it make a move to prevent the heavy weapons the US gave to SDF from being used? Turkey wanted the US to not only give a green light but to tie the hands of Kurds. In particular, Turkey wanted the US to take back the weapons it gave to the YPG.
The US pledged these weapons would not be used against Turkey. The Kurds I spoke to last week believed the US’ strategy would be to hobble both Turks and Kurds through limited and controlled engagement.
Such intervention would allow for different scenarios to unfold.
A Kurdish alignment with the Syrian army is one.
Second, if the SDF’s YPG elements move toward the front line up north, Arab tribes down south could attempt to take over control over southern areas. Oil is a determining factor for the Arab tribes that have units within the SDF.
Third, ISIS could make a comeback.
Most important of all, the Syrian army could rapidly return to the east of the Euphrates.
Syria and its allies regard Turkey’s intervention as functional because American military presence ends and the Kurds are weakened and pushed to Damascus. Their next actions could determine the end limits of this operation. The Syrian army west of the Euphrates is already positioned to enter Manbij with the support of Russia. On the east side of the Euphrates, the Syrian army and their allied militia forces have been ready for months around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. If the US doesn’t prevent these forces from moving north as it did before, there could be a frontal action against Turkey’s movement from the south.
In short, much uncertainty prevails. For now, the only thing we can discard is peace and stability.