Why would one revisit a long forgotten subject while supressing a yawn? This time around, I have some personal motives. International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report that included a face-to-face interview with SDF commander Mazlum Abdi. Respectable regional expert Dareen Khalifa also shared a mini-thread via Twitter on that very same report. Jerusalem Post interviewed PKK founder and still presently senior leader Murat Karayılan. Not as recently as these yet not very long time ago outgoing U.S. Syria Special Envoy James Jeffrey also accorded an interview to DefenseOne.
On the other hand, there is barely one new variable in the game. Which may or may not count as potential a game-changer depending on where you stand. incoming U.S. president Joe Biden just announced a formidable foreign policy and national security team, members of which and other senior diplomats affiliated with them are more than well versed in Turkey file. Even VP Kamala Harris’ NSA Nancy McEldowney was DCM in Ankara while yours truly was fresh back from Baghdad as Iraq desk officer. However, let alone Idlib or East of Euphrates, not even Syria or, for that matter, Middle East in general terms is expected to be high on the incoming U.S. administration’s agenda.
If you melt all the four references in the first paragraph here-above in one pot, there is a common underlining glimmer of expectation of constructive dialogue to be established between Ankara and the SDF to be facilitated by Washington. Well, as most of the wines do not age well but turn into vinegar I do not wish to be named as the party pooper from my perch. Yet, I find myself unable to buy a ticket to that boat. “In your case, that ship has long sailed” you may remind me but let’s not get personal here.
My realism, or call it my pessimism if you will, is based upon the following: As thing stands Ankara, (I deliberately use the anodyne term “Ankara” to depict a certain coalition or even conglomeration of power in current Turkey) is more self-confident than ever. Having come back from an easy away victory in Qarabagh, it hardly restrains itself from emulating it elsewhere. There is no reason whatsoever for Ankara to accept Mazlum Abdi as an official interlocutor for the time being. I also do not see how and even why Abdi should or would draw a watertight line between the SDF and Qandil.
U.S., even after “going through the motions” era of Ambassador Jeffrey, may still be inclined to follow the red herring of a SDF “diluted” with KRG (read KDP) backed ENKS to make it more “palatable” for Ankara. Neither Syria in 2020 is Iraq in 1995, nor the PKK is the KDP. All the more so, the world is a different place and the US is not the US of lore. Furthermore, what is in question is not for sure the survival of the Republic of Turkey but the survival of Erdoğan’s presidency which stands on the shoulders of the MHP and, to put it timidly, “the security bureaucracy”.
True, in Idlib, Turkey remains the last bulwark stopping Putin from handing Assad a decisive all out victory prior to Syrian elections in 2021. It is also true that the U.S. now turns and will in the near future turn a blind eye to the ongoing military encroachment of the PKK hideouts in the mountainous tri-border area. Third fact to be checked, is Turkey’s NATO alliance with the U.S. taking precedence to the US transactional military partnership on the ground with the SDF in the East of Euphrates. Then, looking over the horizon, one can only reasonably expect more the same. That is, a lukewarm, mashed potato tasted ersatz of a US foreign policy juggling to keep the humpty-dumpty together.
There may be one unexpected, “black swan” sort of a push for change. As is the case with Israel versus Iran, Ankara can perceive the last remaining weeks of this out of the ordinary transition phase as a window of opportunity to be closed on the 20th of January. “Mission creep” is a lesson learned in Vietnam for the US military to be avoided at all costs from then on, whereas “fait accompli” is the battle cry of the Turkish military since the Cyprus Peace Operation in 1974. At best, we can see Biden administration potential offering a new credit to Ankara concerning the S-400/CAATSA sanctions and the Halkbank case files. At worst, Turkey again can “do its own thing.”
Herkül Millas, starts his last column (Ahval English, 5 Dec. ’20) as such: “Turkey has changed so much the last few years that knowledge of the recent past may prove deceptive in leading one’s judgment astray.” and concludes it as such: “The old state has been toppled. This is a new Turkey that needs to be re-discovered and re-evaluated. Limited ingredients necessitate new recipes.” The old hands in the new Biden administration may wish to take heed of his clear eyed analysis. In the mean-time Qandil’s only remaining move on the chessboard is towards the declaration of a permanent and unilateral ceasefire.