Turkey plans move to box in Kurds in north­ern Syria

Cen­tral­ity of anti-Kur­dish agenda il­lus­trates ex­tent to which Turks have aban­doned any no­tion of ‘regime change’ in Syria

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONTLINES - • By JONATAN SPYER

The Turk­ish mil­i­tary this week scouted Syria’s Idlib prov­ince, in the north­west of the coun­try, in prepa­ra­tion for a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion in the prov­ince. The de­ploy­ment of a re­con­nais­sance team into Idlib came days af­ter Turk­ish troops and ar­mor massed on the Turk­ish-Syr­ian bor­der, and a sec­tion of the bor­der wall was dis­man­tled to al­low the pas­sage of mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan told a rally of sup­port­ers of his Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party in the town of Afy­onkarahisar on Satur­day that a “se­ri­ous op­er­a­tion” was un­der way in Idlib. The op­er­a­tion, he added, would be car­ried out by fighters of the Free Syr­ian Army. Rebels from a va­ri­ety of Turk­ish-backed fac­tions, in turn, are as­sem­bling at the bor­der in the Rey­hanli area.

What is the back­ground to this lat­est move? Why does Turkey ap­pear to be pre­par­ing an­other ma­jor in­cur­sion into Syria?

Idlib prov­ince is cur­rently con­trolled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group. This is the lat­est it­er­a­tion of the or­ga­ni­za­tion once called Jab­hat al-Nusra. Nusra was the fran­chise of the al-Qaida net­work in Syria. HTS claims to have cut links to al-Qaida, though few an­a­lysts re­gard this move as more than tac­ti­cal.

While there is strong ev­i­dence of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Turkey and HTS in the past, the is­sue of HTS dom­i­nance has now be­come a mat­ter of con­cern for Ankara.

US of­fi­cial Brett McGurk de­scribed Idlib in July as “an al-Qaida safe haven right on the bor­der of Turkey.” It is clear that there is pres­sure from both the US and Europe for the ter­mi­na­tion of the de facto al-Qaida safe zone that has emerged in Idlib prov­ince. From this point of view, the West may well wel­come a Turk­ish move to re­duce the power and au­ton­omy of HTS in Idlib.

How­ever, Turkey’s move to­ward in­ter­ven­tion in the prov­ince re­lates most cen­trally to Ankara’s broader agenda and con­cerns in Syria – most specif­i­cally with re­gard to the Kur­dish forces in the coun­try, with which the West is cur­rently aligned.

The im­pend­ing Turk­ish move into Idlib takes place in the con­text of the As­tana agree­ment be­tween Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran, which en­vis­aged the cre­ation of four “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” in west­ern Syria. These were to be in Idlib, in the Ras­tan-Tal­biseh area, in Eastern Ghouta close to Da­m­as­cus, and in Quneitra, Dera’a and Suwayda prov­inces in the south, ad­join­ing the Golan Heights. Turk­ish me­dia re­ports sug­gest that Turkey will take con­trol of an area of north­ern Idlib prov­ince, close to the Turk­ish bor­der, in a move anal­o­gous to the Euphrates Shield op­er­a­tion in Au­gust 2016. On that oc­ca­sion, Turk­ish forces cap­tured the area be­tween Jarab­u­lus and Azaz on the bor­der.

In both cases, the cen­tral Turk­ish am­bi­tion re­lated not to the gen­eral Syr­ian sit­u­a­tion but, rather, to Ankara’s spe­cific agenda of re­strict­ing the ad­vance of the Syr­ian Kur­dish forces of the YPG/Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF).

Euphrates Shield in­serted Turk­ish armed force be­tween the Kur­dish con­trolled can­tons of Jazeera/Kobani and Afrin. In so do­ing, it ef­fec­tively ended Kur­dish hopes of unit­ing the can­tons and at­tain­ing Kur­dish con­trol of the en­tire 900-km. bor­der be­tween Syria and Turkey. The Kur­dish author­ity in Syria is aligned with the PKK (Kur­dish Work­ers Party), which has been en­gaged in an in­sur­gency for greater Kur­dish rights in Turkey since 1984. From a Turk­ish point of view, there­fore, pre­vent­ing Kur­dish con­trol of the en­tire bor­der was es­sen­tial.

The ex­pected move into Idlib looks set ef­fec­tively to be the sec­ond phase in this ef­fort, in which Turkey will seek to iso­late the Kur­dish Afrin en­clave from its south by oc­cu­py­ing north­ern Idlib. Afrin would then be en­tirely boxed in, with the Turks to its north, east and west, and the regime to its south­east.

This would pre­vent any pos­si­bil­ity of the Kurds (SDF) them­selves mov­ing against al-Qaida-as­so­ci­ated forces in Idlib, grab­bing the ter­ri­tory held by them and ex­pand­ing the Kur­dish en­clave. It might also presage a later Turk­ish move against the Afrin en­clave, though at present this is un­likely be­cause of the US al­liance with the Kurds, and also be­cause of the pres­ence of a small Rus­sian mil­i­tary pres­ence in­side Afrin.

The cen­tral­ity of the anti-Kur­dish agenda in Turkey’s plan­ning il­lus­trates the ex­tent to which the Turks have now con­clu­sively aban­doned any no­tion of “regime change” in Syria. As­sad is clearly here to stay, in Ankara’s view. Any move into Idlib would be con­ducted in full co­op­er­a­tion with the regime’s Rus­sian pa­trons, and prob­a­bly with Rus­sian air sup­port.

For this rea­son, while a Turk­ish move into Idlib would be an os­ten­si­bly pro-rebel move, many ex­iled Syr­ian sup­port­ers of the re­bel­lion in Turkey are un­en­thu­si­as­tic about it. They see the move, cor­rectly, as so­lid­i­fy­ing Turk­ish co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia, which the rebels re­gard as the main en­emy of their cause. Rus­sia, af­ter all, is the fac­tor that turned the tide of the Syr­ian war. Its en­try in Septem­ber 2015 was in re­sponse to a pe­riod of rebel ad­vances. The Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion re­versed the rebel ad­vance and en­abled the as­cen­dance of the regime side.

Turk­ish co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia in Idlib of­fers fur­ther grim con­fir­ma­tion for the rebels of the fail­ure of their cause. For many rebel sup­port­ers, also, HTS fighters are con­sid­ered com­rades in arms, al­beit ex­trem­ist ones. The no­tion of Turkey act­ing against them, even par­tially and sym­bol­i­cally, with Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion, is a hard morsel to swal­low. Nev­er­the­less, the Turk­ish move in­di­cates that Er­do­gan still sees him­self as the pa­tron and ally of the rebels, and that he ev­i­dently does not in­tend sim­ply to aban­don them to the mer­cies of the As­sad regime.

The Turk­ish move could not, of course, take place with­out Rus­sian per­mis­sion, since Rus­sia con­trols the skies of north­ern Syria. This in­di­cates that, for now at least, Rus­sia is con­tent to see Syria con­tinue to be di­vided into zones of in­flu­ence, with the con­cerns of bod­ies other than the As­sad regime be­ing taken into ac­count. From an Is­raeli point of view, given Is­rael’s con­cerns to pre­vent Ira­nian and Hezbol­lah en­croach­ment in south­west Syria to­ward the Golan Heights, this may be an en­cour­ag­ing sign.

How­ever, it should be borne in mind that, for the mo­ment, the fo­cus of Rus­sia, Iran and the regime is in eastern Syria, where the fight against Is­lamic State is still un­der way.

Rus­sia wants to grab as much of the oil and gas as­sets of Deir al-Zor prov­ince as it can, be­fore the US-sup­ported SDF does.

Iran, mean­while, is en­gaged in seek­ing to se­cure its con­tigu­ous cor­ri­dor be­tween the Iraqi bor­der and the Mediter­ranean.

Once the war against Is­lamic State is com­plete, the is­sue of ar­range­ments fur­ther west will come back onto the agenda. At that point, the cur­rent zones of in­flu­ence may once again be­come a sub­ject for dis­cus­sion.

For now, Turkey is mainly con­cerned with the ur­gent mat­ter of seek­ing to box in and strike at the Kurds. It is in this con­text that the ap­par­ently im­pend­ing move on Idlib prov­ince needs to be un­der­stood. Fi­nal ar­range­ments in north­ern Syria re­main to be de­cided.

(Os­man Or­sal/Reuters)

Mevaseret Zion TURK­ISH ARMORED mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles pa­trol on the Turk­ish-Syr­ian bor­der in Rey­hanli, Hatay prov­ince, Turkey, ear­lier this week.

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