Turkey in gradual military pull-back in northern Syria

Turkey appears to be stepping up troop withdrawals in northern Syria as their presence in some areas becomes untenable.

The Turkish government has strongly rejected the option of abandoning military observation posts in the region, but their strategic value is waning and its policy of opening them has failed, Arab News reported on Friday, citing analysts.

Turkey has evacuated an observation post at Al-Eis in northern Syria after it was surrounded by regime forces and Iranian-backed militia seeking control of a strategic highway. Eight of the 12 posts controlled by Turkey have been encircled, Arab News said.

“Several other Turkish observation posts already have been encircled by Russian and Iranian backed forces. The remaining posts are in areas controlled by rebels,” said Halid Abdurrahman, a researcher on the Middle East and North Africa.

Turkey set up the observation post as part of the Astana process, a forum established three years ago between Russia, Turkey and Iran to help negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict.

Since October, Turkey has abandoned four of the posts and two military positions in Idlib, Arab News said.

“It was clear that these observation points would fail because under the Astana deal three countries had their own interests which often clash. Now the key question is whether Turkey will use its military presence in Idlib for defensive or offensive purposes,” Abdurrahman said.

Turkey’s military presence in some areas of northern Syria has also been compromised by a decision in early December by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Russia and the Syrian army to set up three joint observation posts in the Kurdish-controlled town of Ain Issa.

The three posts will monitor a ceasefire agreed under a deal last year between Russia and Turkey that requires Kurdish forces to withdraw to 32 kilometres from the Turkish border, Arab News said.

The establishment of the Russia-SDF observation points have angered Turkey because power-sharing with the SDF would be even more problematic than handing over territory to Damascus, said Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, according to Arab News.