Turkey faces hard task if it moves east of Euphrates in Syria - journalist

During an official visit to the United States in late September, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned the possibility of a military offensive in Syria to the east of the River Euphrates, a move that would further complicate the geopolitics of a region already mired in multi-sided conflict.

Erdoğan said the Turkish military would “increase the number of secure zones inside Syria in the coming period,” particularly in areas controlled by Syrian Kurds.

To better understand the possibility of such an operation and its likely effects, Ahval spoke to Fehim Taştekin, a journalist who focuses on developments in the region. 

Erdoğan has set his sights on two areas for this intervention, the first is Tel Abyad, located between the towns of Jazeera and Kobani, both of which are controlled by Syrian Kurds, and Ras al-Ayn, which lies to the east of Tel Abyad.

The primary reason, according to Erdoğan, to capture these two regions is to prevent what he calls a terror corridor linking Kobani and Jazeera, which are controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey says is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984.

“Under present conditions, Turkey’s intervention to the east of the Euphrates won’t be easy,” said Taştekin.

The only thing that would be easy, he said, was convincing the Turkish public of the need for the offensive.

“While the YPG and their Arab partners were clearing Tel Abyad of ISIS (Islamic State) in 2015, Turkey was the sole country to oppose the operation by claiming it was ethnic cleansing. Now, (Turkey) can sell the Tel Abyad intervention to the domestic and foreign public by saying 'I can ensure the Arabs and the Turkmens who have been subject to ethnic cleansing will return to their homes again’,” Taştekin said.

The hard part, he said, would be getting the green light from the United States. Turkey and the United States have long been at loggerheads over U.S. support of the YPG, which makes up backbone of U.S.-backed ground forces fighting the ISIS in Syria.

ISIS captured Tel Abyad in January 2014 and set about wiping out the local Kurdish population. But Turkey did not intervene, Taştekin said, hoping the extreme jihadists would fight the Syrian Kurds and Ankara, he said, even “turned a blind eye to the passing of militants and explosives across the border”.

Since then, Turkey has carried out two major operations into Syria. First, Operation Euphrates Shield, launched in 2016, pushed back ISIS from the border and prevented the YPG joining its northwestern district of Afrin with territory to the east. Then, in March this year, Turkish troops captured Afrin.

But in these previous operations, no U.S. troops were present on the ground as they are now in Kurdish-held areas.

“Conditions have changed,” Taştekin said. “The American factor didn’t exist when Turkey was indirectly intervening in those regions. The U.S. may not remain a spectator and watch Turkey throw a spanner in the works in a place where it has its own forces.”

Although U.S. President Donald Trump has said he would pull troops out of Syria, U.S. policymakers are concerned to preserve the U.S. partnership with the Kurds.

After Turkish troops captured the town of al-Bab during Operation Euphrates Shield, Ankara set its sights on Manbij, a Kurdish-held town in northern Syria. But by that time the United States had a sizeable force in Manbij.

To resolve this, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck a deal in early June for the YPG to leave Manbij.

“Instead of handing over Manbij, the U.S. agreed to co-patrol the periphery of the city to sooth its NATO ally after much negotiation and reconciliation,” Taştekin said.

Several observers saw the deal as a way to smooth relations between the United States and Turkey, which are strained over a number of issues, notably Turkey's detention of an American pastor on terrorism charges.

But at a press briefing on Sept. 3, Erdoğan said the United States was dragging its feet on the Manbij deal. “The job is being delayed. We are not at an ideal point. The agreement we had reached is not being implemented in the right direction,” Erdoğan said.

On Monday, the NATO allies began training for the joint patrols, but Turkish troops are not allowed into the city centre. Turkey sees the Manbij Military Council, which has taken over the security of the town, as a front for the YPG.

"The U.S. hasn't approved an option like Turkey taking control of the town. What they say is that the city will be in the hands of local powers. Who are these local powers? Erdoğan thinks the local powers in the Euphrates Operations regions will be under the guidance of the Turkish Armed Forces. The U.S. thinks the local powers are the current structure in place. How will they find common ground?” Taştekin said.

The United States, however, could easily change its stance and, as the Kurds fear, abandon them to the mercies of Turkey and the Syrian government.

Although U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds has long been a sore spot for Turkey, Taştekin thinks the rhetoric does little to affect practicalities on the ground.

“America is not in the situation where it has to make a choice between either being in alliance with NATO or with the Kurds. When pushing the boundaries, they trust their ability to mollify Turkey. Think about it – Erdoğan shouts that the ‘U.S. sent 180,000 trucks of weapons and ammunition’, but then Turkey continues to be a problem-free military ally of the U.S.. While there are no problems or deterioration in this field, the Americans must be thinking ‘let Erdoğan yell’.”