As deal looms, Turkey’s “Peace Spring” creates mainly violence, instability
In destroying a relatively stable Kurdish entity, eroding Western influence and empowering Russia and the Syrian government - which have shown little desire to counter Islamic State - Turkey’s offensive seems set to significantly increase instability in northeast Syria, rather than reduce it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi on Tuesday to discuss northeast Syria, where the United States has essentially cut ties with its key ally in the fight against ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Observers expect a Russia-Turkey deal that will satisfy Putin’s desire to solidify President Bashar Assad’s government and satisfy Ankara’s desire to further uproot the SDF and its affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“Everyone knew this meeting was probably going to be more determining of things than the American ceasefire,” independent Syria and terrorism analyst Kyle Orton told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the Pence-Erdoğan meeting last week. “With the Americans on the way out, their leverage is really minimal. So everyone is making their calculations without the Americans there.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that some 200 U.S. troops would stay in Syria to protect Kurdish-controlled oil fields, but the areas in which they will be stationed are south of the areas targeted by Turkish forces.
The YPG is supposed to have withdrawn by Tuesday from all areas along the Syrian border with Turkey, according to the U.S.-Turkey ceasefire deal. But top Kurdish officials have expressed their commitment to the previous U.S.-Turkey safe zone plan, which required withdrawal from only the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
Orton expected the Russia-Turkey deal to lay out Syria-controlled safe zones around the towns of Kobani and Jazeera, on either side of the Turkish-controlled area from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ayn, with Ankara talking to Moscow about clearing the YPG from those government-controlled areas.
Kurdish affairs analyst Abdulla Hawez does not foresee an easy hand-over of those areas.
“I am highly sceptical of any SDF withdrawal from any area outside the Tel Abyad-Ras Al-Ayn zone,” he told Ahval, pointing out that SDF leader Mazloum Kobani said on Sunday that his militia was well prepared to defend Kobani and Jazeera and had international support.
These areas “are the heart of the SDF support base and the homeland of Kurds,” said Hawez.
But even if the Syrian government is able to retake these areas, Turkey will still face a problem, according to Orton. Much like Turkish officials, Orton sees the YPG as closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in Turkey for 35 years and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey.
“The overall trend is that the PKK is going to get folded back into its old position as an instrument of Damascus and Russia,” he said.
Orton envisions a period during which Damascus and Moscow teach the group to come to heel. “I think taking Kobani may be one of the ways that happens,” he said.
Once the YPG is back under Assad’s control, it will start being used as a way to pressure Turkey, as happened before Syria expelled PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1998. “Turkish officials are willing to accept Assad returning (to these areas) even if the regime acquires this newly powerful instrument to pressure them down the line,” said Orton.
A more pressing matter is what all this might mean for the fight against ISIS. Some 10,000 ISIS prisoners are being held in prison camps across northeast Syria, with reports of several hundred escaping since Turkey’s offensive began. A New York Times report on Monday detailed how ISIS had already made considerable gains in the past few weeks.
Orton, who believes ISIS is as powerful now as in 2013, before it declared the caliphate, said a certain level of ISIS resurgence was inevitable, but he did not expect the group to try to take significant territory and re-establish a caliphate, as it has shifted away from that policy.
Yet ISIS tends to take advantage of power vacuums, and the violence in northeast Syria has led to several areas changing hands. “This is far from a smooth transition, so ISIS will have even more space to play,” he said.
The two actors leading the fight against ISIS in recent years have been the United States and the SDF. One just took itself out of the fight, at least within Syria, while the other is expected to come under the control of Assad and Putin.
Turkey, for its part, is widely thought to have turned a blind eye to ISIS fighters passing through its territory in the first years of the war, significantly contributing to ISIS’ growth. Its new allies have a similarly troubling record, according to Orton.
“The Russians have proven willing to use ISIS when they see fit,” he said, pointing out that when Moscow intervened in Syria it left ISIS alone in the east and went after the opposition in the west. “Assad’s manipulated ISIS all along the way to divide and destroy the rebellion.”
Orton said there were probably some ways for the United States to combat ISIS from across the border in Iraq, as it has said it plans to do. “But it all seems a bit small,” he said. “Once you lose control on the ground you lose the real sense of what’s happening.”
Orton believes Turkey’s Syria offensive was inevitable once the U.S. partnership with the YPG encouraged it to create a statelet along the border. But he also sees it as problematic.
“The Turkish incursion is basically indefensible,” said Orton, pointing to the new round of violence, the displacement of more than 150,000 people and the troubling involvement of Turkey’s mercenary rebel partners. “It’s a grim situation.”
There have been reports of Turkey-backed rebels using white phosphorus and committing roadside executions, which many observers said echoes the charges of kidnapping, looting and forced displacement by some of the same rebel groups in Turkish-controlled Afrin.
“We knew after Afrin the nature of them and what they would do,” said Orton, who acknowledged that Turkey was largely unable to control its rebel allies. “It’s a bit of a mystery why Turkey has allowed them to front this, given the amount of international attention.”
All this explains the continuing international condemnation. A bipartisan U.S. sanctions bill introduced last week, for instance, includes measures against Erdoğan and other officials, banks, military and energy sector, and finding alternative locations for the United States’ 50 nuclear weapons in Turkey.
But Turkish officials still hope to return up to 2 million Syrian refugees to the planned safe zone, a plan critics describe as demographic engineering and expect to create deep-seated tensions that could last generations.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.