Turkish misadventure in Syria

Turkey launches a military offensive in northern Syria, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “green light”, to eliminate the “Kurdish terror threat”, but subsequent developments do not follow President Erdogan’s script.

Published : Oct 29, 2019 07:00 IST

TUrkey-backed  Free Syrian Army fighters heading towards the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from the Turkish border town of Akcakale on October 10.

TUrkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters heading towards the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from the Turkish border town of Akcakale on October 10.

It looks like Turkey will have to face an outcome it had least expected after it got the green light from United States President Donald Trump to invade north-eastern Syria on October 9. The Turkish ground-and-air offensive, codenamed “Operation Peace Spring”, resulted in more than a hundred deaths and triggered another refugee exodus by the third week of October. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a nationally broadcast speech, announced his government’s plans to create a 30-kilometre-deep safe zone along Turkey’s border with Syria. The Erdogan government has grandiose plans of settling two to three million Syrian refugees who had fled from other parts of the country in this buffer zone. Many of the refugees are Syrian Arabs who would be pushed into territory that was occupied by Kurds and other non-Arab minorities.

Turkey said it had “neutralised” 525 Kurdish fighters since the fighting began and claimed control of many areas along the border. Erdogan has been threatening since last year to launch an all-out assault against the army of the Syrian Kurds, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Turkish assault would have happened earlier in the year after Trump announced in December 2018 that he planned to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. But Trump was forced to backtrack after protests by the Pentagon and his own Republican allies in Congress.

After his telephonic talk with Erdogan on October 6, the Pentagon revealed, Trump ordered the removal of all U.S. troops from the conflict zone in northern Syria. Defence Secretary Mark Esper, however, said that all the special forces would not leave immediately as some troops were needed to safeguard equipment and military supplies. Some 150 special forces will remain in the al-Tanf base in southern Syria. So, the U.S. continues to keep around a thousand troops on the ground in northern Syria.

Trump’s surprise decision to give in to Erdogan’s demands once again took the U.S. political and military establishment by surprise. Erdogan thought he finally had a deal with Washington, but within days after the Turkish military offensive began, Trump again started wavering under pressure. His political allies such as Senator Lindsay Graham were angry with the decision to throw the YPG and the Kurds under the bus and withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. The liberal interventionists among Democrats are critical of Trump’s decision. The anger in the West against Erdogan has been compounded by the way events have unravelled since the Turkish military intervention inside Syria began.

Trump, while saying that it was a “very smart” decision to not get involved in Syria, has decided to impose “sanctions” on Turkey for allegedly crossing the “red lines”. He has so far not bothered to specify what the “red lines” are. The Pentagon said that the Turkish Army deliberately targeted a U.S. Special Forces outpost near the town of Kobane, in an effort to further push them away from the border. Trump, in one of his delirious tweets, threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it crossed the line, which was never clearly defined.

Turkey had reportedly assured the U.S. Army that it would encroach only a few kilometres inside Syrian territory. But it was clear to most security and military analysts that Turkey’s major goal was to take control of the M4 highway that runs parallel to the border and allows for troops movement between the east and west of Kurdish majority areas. The highway is about 30 km from the border.

On October 14, Trump signed an executive order authorising sanctions on individuals and officials in Turkey “who endanger civilians or lead to the further deterioration of peace, security and stability in north-eastern Syria”. Washington has imposed a 50 per cent tariff on steel and suspended negotiations on a $100-billion trade deal with Turkey. Vice President Mike Pence went to the extent of saying that Trump had not given the “green light” to Erdogan to launch the military offensive against Syria. He told the media that Trump had asked Turkey to order an immediate ceasefire. Erdogan remained defiant and pledged to continue with the invasion until what he termed the “Kurdish terror threat” to the country’s security was eliminated. “We are determined to take our operations to the end. We will finish what we started. A hoisted flag does not come down,” he said.

Meanwhile, all the 28 European Union (E.U.) states have stopped selling arms to Turkey, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Not too long ago, Turkey and NATO had cooperated with terror groups such as the al Nusra front to bring about regime change in Syria. Erdogan thought he had a deal with Trump on Syria. Now the deal has boomeranged on both Erdogan and Trump in different ways. Erdogan suddenly finds himself isolated internationally while Trump, who is facing impeachment, is accused of committing one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. diplomatic history.

Anti-terrorist coalition

The vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal has been filled immediately by the anti-terrorist coalition comprising Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Syria has regained sovereignty over most part of the northern region almost overnight. It was the U.S. bombing and the shedding of Kurdish blood that played a big part in the defeat of the Daesh (Islamic State) in northern Syria. The Syrian Army was forcibly kept out of the fray. After the Turkish attack, the end game for the total liberation of Syria started. The Syrian government pledged that it would continue its war on terror and liberate all its territory by expelling “all illegitimate forces” present in the country. The last opposition held province of Idlib is on the verge of being liberated.

The Syrian government alleged that the terrorist groups holed up in Idlib were still receiving help from Turkey and the U.S. Special Forces. It has termed the Turkish invasion as a clear act of aggression against a sovereign nation.

A statement from the Syrian government said: “Since the beginning of the war in Syria, the Turkish regime never stopped its intention of destabilising and destroying Syria. President Erdogan opened the Turkish border with Syria to allow terrorists to enter Syria and kill Syrian people, aided and funded by the U.S. and its allies.”

Riad Abbas, Syria’s Ambassador to India, said that there were around 17,000 Daesh terrorists on the loose in northern Syria and another 70,000 terrorists in the rest of the country. The Syrian government has been demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops on its territory, including the illegally stationed U.S., French and British forces. As was to be expected, the angry and disillusioned Syrian Kurd leaders did not waste much time in striking a deal with the government in Damascus after the Turkish army started specifically targeting them. The Syrian government and the Kurds have historically had a love-hate relationship. The government of Hafiz al-Assad had supported the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish fight for a separate state within Turkey until the 1990s. The PKK’s founder Abdullah Ocalan was living in Syria. The Turkish government had threatened an invasion of Syria in 1998 because of the support it extended to the Kurdish liberation movement. The government in Damascus, bowing to Turkey’s pressure (Turkey has the second biggest army among NATO member-states), told Ocalan to leave. He was arrested by the Central Intelligence Agency in Nairobi in 1999 and handed over to the Turkish authorities.

When terrorist and jehadist forces, aided and abetted by the U.S., Turkey and their allies, started creating mayhem in Syria from 2012, the government in Damascus withdrew its troops from northern Syria after coming to an understanding with the Kurdish political parties. With the government preoccupied with defending the capital and other cities in the more populated parts of Syria, the Kurds had a free hand in northern Syria. This part, though vastly arid, also contains agriculturally rich land that was the breadbasket of the country. It also has rich oil and gas fields.

During the civil war, the Daesh took control of Raqqa and other major cities in the region along with the oil and gas fields. When the Daesh was in control, much of the oil and gas went to Turkey. In its fight against the Daesh in northern Syria, the international coalition chose the YPG to do the fighting on the ground. The YPG was no doubt promised permanent protection by the U.S. in return for services rendered. The areas controlled by the Daesh fell into the hands of the Syrian Kurds. Most of the areas were populated by Arabs and other minorities who preferred to be under the rule of the Syrian government anyway.

It is a fact that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is an affiliate of the banned PKK based in Turkey. The U.S. considers the PKK a terrorist organisation but this has not stopped it from arming, training and financially assisting the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD. The battle-hardened YPG indeed played a big role in defeating the Daesh. In the aftermath of the battle, the YPG was left in control of a broad swathe of Syrian territory, with the U.S., British and French special forces to back it up.

The Syrian Kurds started dreaming of setting up a state of their own with the backing of the West. Many neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists in the West have toyed with the idea of propping up an independent Kurdistan in West Asia. The last attempt, in northern Iraq, was a dismal failure. Iran, which has a Kurdish minority, is also opposed to an independent Kurdish state. Most of the Kurdish population in the region is anyway inside Turkey.

Kurds’ deal with Syrian government

An independent Kurdish state along its border is anathema to the Turkish state. The Syrian government, on the other hand, has offered broad autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. After Turkey launched its military attack against them, the Kurds quickly signed a deal with Damascus. They had little option as their forces, without the backing of U.S. firepower, were hardly a match for the vastly superior Turkish Army.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as the YPG-led force aligned with the U.S. styled themselves, have pledged to completely integrate with the Syrian armed forces. Syrian government forces were on the frontlines to confront the Turkish invaders by October 14. Syrian forces were welcomed into many towns, including the town of Manbij near the border with Turkey, and Tal Tamr, the site of an important dam on the Euphrates river, on October 14, immediately after the deal with the Kurds was signed. There is now a danger of Turkish troops clashing with the Syrian Army.

“In order to prevent and block this assault, agreement has been reached with the Syrian government whose duty it is to protect the borders and Syrian sovereignty, for the Syrian army to enter and deploy along the entire length of the Syrian-Turkish border,” a statement from the SDF said.

Russia played an important negotiating role in hammering out a deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that all foreign military forces should leave Syria. A spokesman for the Kurds said that the Syrian Army would be responsible for protecting the border with Turkey while the Kurdish-led administration would maintain internal security in the region.

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