Turkey, vital to U.S. endgame, may get Syria foothold – analysis

The United States may grant Turkey a temporary foothold in northern Syria because its support is vital to avoiding Russian-imposed peace for Syria, writes Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor for the Guardian.

The United States cannot afford to lose the diplomatic backing of Turkey, but the Turkish preoccupation with Kurdish militants just inside Syria could lead President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reach a deal with Moscow and Damascus in which President Bashar Assad remains in charge.

The West does have “some stakes in the ground” such as the threat to withhold reconstruction funds and a pledge to keep 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely, but the value of this leverage is “immeasurably diminished” if Turkey’s support is lost, Wintour said.

While the United States, Britain and France have criticised the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, they have not instructed Turkey to pull back. This low-key approach probably means Ankara can push ahead with the operation in Afrin, he said.

“The U.S. can argue it tolerated Kurdish territorial expansions across northern Syria, and specifically west of the Euphrates river, only so long as the Kurdish militias inside the Syrian Democratic Forces were needed to defeat ISIS, but now that battle has been won the U.S. priority is to stop the freefall in its relations with Turkey.

“If that means a temporary Turkish foothold in the patchwork that is Syria, so be it.”

Russia aims to push ahead with its political solution for Syria in Sochi on Jan. 29-30, together with Iran and Turkey. And there are signs that Turkey will play a full role after Moscow appeared to soften its stance on which Kurdish groups would be invited to the meetings, satisfying Ankara’s demand that militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are excluded, Wintour said.

“The West fears (Russian President) Vladimir Putin regards Sochi as an alternative to the UN-led peace talks, and an assertion of Russian authority across the Middle East,” he said.

This threatens to sideline the United Nations and its own initiatives, which include sessions of talks either side of Sochi.

“The outlines of a deal are discernible – in which Turkey backs a Russian peace process and Moscow tacitly accedes to a Turkish drive to weaken the Syrian Kurds on its borders,” Wintour said.