The growing complexity of northeast Syria

Northeast Syria is becoming more complex almost by the day.

Turkey continues to insist on setting up a safe zone to be controlled exclusively by the Turkish army to the east of the River Euphrates. But the balance in the region is so sensitive that none of the actors dare to upset it.

The United States does not want to alienate Turkey, so it tries to persuade the Kurds to involve Ankara in a plan that would keep northeast Syria out of Damascus’ control.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not stopped repeating in his public speeches the refrain of a Turkish song - “we may come one night, all of sudden” - referring to a military operation in northern Syria.

This narrative was perceived as part of a campaign to boost votes for the nationalist wing of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its partner far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in March 31 local elections. It remains to be seen whether he will repeat the same refrain now that the polls are over.

The United States has always been opposed to further Turkish incursions into Syria. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “expressed support for ongoing negotiations (with Turkey) regarding northeast Syria, while warning of the potentially devastating consequences of unilateral Turkish action in the region”.

Lately there are signs that Washington is growing more aware of Turkey’s legitimate security worries. It has started to make efforts to persuade the Kurds to concede to the deployment of a limited number of Turkish forces to the east of the Euphrates up to the Iraqi border. The United States would prefer a peaceful entry of Turkish troops into Syria rather than a military campaign.

James Jeffry, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition against Islamic State (ISIS), said Ankara and Washington were still working on a framework for the safe zone. Turkish analysts interpreted this as a change in the U.S. attitude towards Turkey’s position, but it is unclear whether this is only a wishful thinking.  

Kurds are fiercely opposed to any Turkish incursion on Syrian soil. Nonetheless, it is not easy for Kurds to oppose U.S. pressure and give up the cooperation with Washington that supplies them with an almost unlimited quantity of equipment, weapons, ammunition and political support. However, if U.S. pressure crosses the Kurds’ red line, they may turn to Syrian President Bashar Assad for assistance, a scenario Washington is strongly against.

Washington has to watch Turkey’s sensitivities as well, because it does not want to lose Turkey to Russia and shake the solidarity among NATO allies, especially now that the question of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence system is subject to lively debate.

Russia is another actor that strongly supports the Kurdish cause. Furthermore, Moscow also opposes Turkey’s military presence in Syria, but it does not want to overplay this card, because it does not want to interrupt the process of deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the United States and NATO.

Another sensitive subject that casts a shadow on Turkey-U.S. relations is the coming ban imposed by the United States on the purchase of oil from Iran. Turkey was among eight countries that were exempted, up to May 2, from the ban of importing oil from Iran, but President Donald Trump signed a law that lifts the waiver. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said: “The sanctions will not serve regional peace and stability. Turkey rejects unilateral sanctions and pressures on how we should regulate our relations with our neighbours”. But he stopped short of saying whether Turkey would nonetheless abide by the sanctions, because despite this rhetoric, oil imports from Iran dropped to zero in November last year, and in December were still below the waiver threshold.

A January suicide attack that killed four U.S. soldiers in the northern Syrian town of Manbij and the bombings last week in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people, were both claimed by the Islamic State, indicating that the threat from the extreme jihadist group has not been eliminated. This reality may change U.S. plans to leave Syria and push Washington to give a higher priority to the cooperation with the Syrian Kurds.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.