U.S. President Trump did not invite, but allowed, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and its Syrian proxy militia forces—re-branded by Ankara as the “Syrian National Army” (SNA)—to enter Syria. U.S. forces withdrew from northern Syria to avoid clashing with its NATO ally, Turkey. The military operation’s declared scope is a 450-kilometer-wide and 30-kilometer-deep area from Kobane to the Iraqi border, as President Erdoğan did not quite shy away from repeating even after he received Vice President Pence’s visit.
Yet, as things stand at the moment, military activity remains limited to the roughly 120 kilometer area between Akçakale/Tel Abyad/Gire Spi to Ceylanpınar/Ras El-Ayn/Serekani. Almost a perfect rectangle, the area extends south towards the M-4 highway line that lies 30 kilometers to the south, parallel to the border. Again, for the time being, the initial operation is mostly being driven forward by the SNA. At present, even control of Serekani is still contested and SNA’s reach to the M-4 highway appears to be temporary.
As the U.S. pulled out, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Russia, moved into Manbij and Kobane to the west and to the Qamishli axis to the east of the said rectangular field of ongoing operations. Hence, there is no reason why the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) should heed the U.S.-Turkish Joint Statement, and there is no reason why the congressional sanctions effort should stop—it didn’t.
Therefore, considering the situation on the ground and the international relations context, VP Pence’s Ankara visit looks as if the point was to merely announce "a deal,” any deal, rather than actually implementing one. Who knows whether this is due to the internal troubles facing Trump and his possible effort to stop the US Congress from rebelling against him or not. Yet, the text of this “deal” itself is a definitive victory for Erdoğan on both home and foreign policy grounds.
However, that sense of victory may be short-lived, as the deal itself only foresees a window of 120 hours, or five days— the deadline of which, incidentally or not-so-incidentally, exactly coincides with Erdoğan’s visit to Sochi tomorrow (Oct. 22). Another coincidence is the fact that while VP Pence’s delegation was being received by President Erdoğan, in one of the adjacent rooms, İbrahim Kalın, the de facto national security adviser to the president, was holding talks with the Russian special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev.
The same Lavrentiev, as well as Foreign Minister Lavrov, VP Ushakov and other such Russian dignitaries kept pushing about how Russia was instrumental in bringing about peace between the SDF and Damascus. What actually happened was that the Russians left the SDF to face the TAF incursion on their own as the US withdrew, and then forced the SDF to accept not only the return of the Syrian “state” but also the Arab nationalist BAAS “regime” back into the areas under their control.
So, anything left beyond the current 120 kilometer by 30 kilometer area of operations is to be discussed between Moscow and Ankara, and eventually, if the Russians can pull it through, between Damascus and Ankara. The Russians are also dangling the promise of drafting a new constitution in front of the SDF as a possible event on the horizon. The first meeting of the Constitutional Committee, which is pretty much the brainchild of the Russian diplomatic team, is to be held on October 29-30 in Geneva, together with a quartet summit on its margins between the Russian, French, German and Turkish heads of states.
But still, Erdoğan made it clear time and again that Turkey will not be speaking to Damascus, as the Assad government is considered to be illegitimate, nor to the SDF/YPG, as they are considered to be terrorists. Furthermore, the Russians are quite adamant about limiting the TAF’s presence to a five-kilometer strip along the entirety of the border, not the current 120-kilometer-wide zone, and insist on Syrian national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
At the end of the day, we are more or less back where the U.S. and Turkey originally started negotiating the terms of a “safe zone.” Whereas Ankara understood “safe zone” to mean a zone under full and exclusive control of the TAF, as was the case in Afrin and the Bab pockets, the US saw it as a “buffer zone,” with an ambiguous “security mechanism” to go along with that. Still today, both sides draw different conclusions from their “joint” (!) statement as reflected in the discrepancy of the contents of the back-to-back press conferences by VP Pence and Minister Çavuşoğlu in Ankara following their talk.
The difference now on the ground, though, is that the U.S. has left the northern strip of Syria, effectively jeopardising their relationship with the SDF. The SDF had been forced to ally with Assad and Russia in order to survive. In the international arena, Turkey is being widely being perceived as slaughtering the Kurds, not combatting terrorism. Assad’s SAA got back to the Turkish border without firing a single bullet—and Putin smiles while wringing his hands with apparent glee.
On the home front, for Erdoğan, both the unilateral decision enter Syria militarily for the third time and the farcical diplomatic commotion by the US are godsent gifts. Trustee governors have been appointed to the predominantly-Kurdish towns of Hakkâri, Yüksekova and Nusaybin in southeast Turkey. The CHP-run Istanbul metropolitan municipality has been left out of the tender process for the two historical train station buildings of Haydarpaşa and Sirkeci in the city center. An international conference by the non-profit Hrant Dink Foundation has been canceled by a simple last-minute administrative order. The opposition is in more disarray than ever.
Both the U.S. and the EU share the burden of having no coherent policies towards Turkey. Neither the US nor the EU have much leverage left with Turkey or the SDF, either. Not only the Syrians and the Syrian Kurds are alone, but Turkey’s democrats as well. The age-old concepts of national interest and national security became travesties of repression, a party-state and one-man rule. What we have at hand is merely a Turkey-U.S. “joint statement” with a mere five-day shelf life—not an agreement. Erdoğan still sets the tone and the tempo, and we will have to watch this game with riveted attention until its bitter end.
Only, this here ain’t no game. As famined Romans besieged by Alaric’s army of Goths exclaimed in rage in 410: “Let human flesh be exposed for sale, and the price settled”—once and for all, if I may humbly add.