All eyes are on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now that the Turkish military has defeated the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces in Afrin.
Cengiz Candar writes, “Experts, observers and even international anti-Islamic State coalition officials thought that the Syrian Kurdish fighters would have put up a stronger resistance to protect the land and that Turkey’s victory would come at a great cost. … Following the decision by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to hand over the city center without engaging in urban warfare against the Turkey-led Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, most now believe that Turkey’s military intervention in Afrin is a prelude to a wider offensive against other cities under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces.”
“Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which began Jan. 20, concluded its 58th day with a Turkish flag hoisted over Afrin’s city center,” Candar adds. “At the same time, Turkey-led FSA factions, including Salafi jihadi groups, were busy plundering the city. The images emerging from the city resembled the taking of a medieval era war booty.”
Ayla Jean Yackley writes, “Evidence the YPG had initially planned to stay and fight in the city includes large stores of weapons supplied by Russia and the United States that were found by Turkish forces, reported Hurriyet citing intelligence sources. But the fighters abandoned Afrin, hiding in civilian convoys headed for Tell Rifaat and Aleppo beginning March 14 after US commanders, recognizing Turkey’s determination and capacity to take the area, persuaded the YPG to return to the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij and resume the fight against IS [the Islamic State], some in Ankara believe.”
“Now two questions persist: How will Turkey’s military achievement translate into politics, and how long will the Turkish military stay in Afrin?” Candar notes. “The best example to find answers is the Euphrates Shield region, which came under control of the Turkish army and FSA forces in March 2017. Since then, Turkey’s grip on the region has only tightened. Jarablus, al-Bab and Azaz are being ruled by officials appointed by Ankara. Turkey resettled some 140,000 Syrians in the region, and Afrin will probably witness a similar process. … However, unlike the Euphrates Shield region, Afrin is less homogenous, with an overwhelmingly Kurdish population. Some 90% of its inhabitants are — or at least were — Kurds, according to Fabrice Balanche, a prominent Syria expert.”
There is no mystery about the depth to which US-Turkish relations have sunk. Yackley quotes Erdogan, in comments directed at the United States, saying, “You say you are our strategic partner, and then you go collaborate with terrorists. The truth is now out there. If we are going to be strategic partners, you have to respect us and walk with us. You tried to deceive us. … You told us you would clean up IS by cooperating with this terrorist organization and did not believe us when we said we should do it together. Now you see how our soldiers and our FSA take care of business.”
Erdogan may be planning an assault on Manbij if the United States does not shut down YPG operations there, according to Turkish press reports, bringing Turkish military and proxy forces close to US troops stationed there.
The crisis in US-Turkey relations stands in contrast to Russia-Turkey ties, where Moscow and Ankara are committed to managing differences through frequent and high-level negotiations, absent the threat and insult that characterizes Erdogan’s remarks directed at Washington.
As we wrote last month, the Astana process, managed by Russia, Iran and Turkey — whatever its limitations, and there are many — has eclipsed the Geneva process as the diplomatic forum with actual traction in Syria. The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met again in Astana on March 16 and issued a joint statement on Syria and began preparations for a trilateral summit that will be held in Turkey on April 4.
Anton Mardasov explains, “Despite the efforts in Astana and Sochi, which were both designed to revive the UN-supported political negotiations in Geneva, the situation in Syria makes it clear that the Geneva talks have stalled and need an absolute reboot. The Syrian regime, backed by pro-Iranian factions, sees the peace initiatives as a way to divide and weaken the opposition. Turkey, which has gained control in Syria of Afrin and is eyeing Manbij, is tempted to play along.”
Mardasov elaborates on some of the differences among the Astana parties. “Russia’s Defense Ministry declared an end to fighting in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, which is controlled by the Islamist and Salafist coalition Jaish al-Islam,” he writes. “The daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat noted that Moscow intended to stabilize the situation in the area after pushing out and relocating small groups of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants, but Damascus and Tehran insisted on destroying all opposition pockets in the de-escalation zones. In any case, pushing Jaish al-Islam out of eastern Ghouta to Idlib is barely possible; this faction is present only in the southwestern area of that de-escalation zone — the zone agreed to by the United States, Russia and nearby Jordan — meaning that the United States would need to be consulted before any action is taken. Moscow is pursuing a tough stance toward the Syrian opposition, fluctuating between issuing ultimatums and negotiating to conclude agreements in Cairo and Geneva. Yet the simplest of options — to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without compromise — can hardly be a viable resolution for Russia.”
Mardasov adds that as Erdogan weighs his next move, it will take some mighty diplomatic efforts to keep Turkey engaged on Astana. “After the operation in Afrin is finished and Idlib is demarcated by creating monitoring bases and situating military groups there, Ankara may shift its focus from working as part of ‘the Astana trio’ in Syria to fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party in Iraq. Turkey also will want to address the United States on the territories taken over by the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the United States in fighting the Islamic State. Moreover, the discussion between Washington and Ankara about the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militants from Manbij is already in progress. In these conditions, Russia and Iran are eager to keep motivating Turkey to continue its cooperation in the trio by giving Ankara options for solving its Kurdish problem in eastern Syria. The United States, for its part, is interested in reaching a compromise with Ankara on the trans-Euphrates area, which the United States, as well as many Gulf monarchies, considers to be a foothold to confront Iranian influence.”
Yekaterina Chulkovskaya reports that while Turkey and Russia are managing differences in Syria, they are nonetheless deepening economic relations. At the top of the list is Turkey’s intention to buy Russian S-400 Triumph surface-to-air systems, which has caused alarm in Washington. “Moscow and Ankara are [also] collaborating on two big projects,” Chulkovskaya adds, “a Russian-built nuclear station in Akkuyu, in Turkey’s Mersin province, and Turkish Stream, a gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea. The nuclear plant will be Turkey’s first. Both projects have faced delays. … Moscow is very interested in developing military-technical cooperation with Ankara.”
Metin Gurcan writes that the Akkuyu nuclear plant “is the largest joint project symbolizing strategic relations between Russia and Turkey. The facility will have a 4,800-megawatt capacity and will cost some $20 billion. Turkish officials still say Akkuyu is scheduled to go into service in 2023 — the centennial of the Turkish Republic — though it is unlikely to meet that schedule. … Turkey is highly dependent on Moscow for the plant’s functioning, as Russia will train the personnel and supply nuclear fuel. So even though the Russia-Turkey relationship might not be a true alliance, the countries will definitely become close partners, which will provide Moscow with potent geopolitical benefits.”