Who’s who in Syria
The Afrin offensive lays bare the alliances shaping Syria. What do the players want?
More than a week into Operation Olive Branch, the offensive appears to be going as planned. But the fallout is still difficult to predict. The bigger picture looks less clear than the minutiae of advancing troops, airstrikes, and counterstrikes. The international community has largely stepped back and given Turkey the space it needs to engage in military action widely considered justifiable, though some have called for it to remain limited in scope. The broader geopolitical dynamics, however, are perhaps more intriguing, and definitely more volatile. The way key nations responded to the offensive reveals a great deal about their own regional interests. The U.S. response also lays bare the ineptitude of the current administration. The question now is: Will Turkey pursue its longterm goals regardless of what the world thinks, and irrespective of consequences? Or has it acted prudently and positioned itself as a key player in the future of Syria?
►Can you break down the nterests and object ves of some of the key players and how th s offens ve looks from the r perspect ves?
Let’s start with the Syrian regime: It is interested in restoring its sov- ereignty in all of Syria. From its perspective, a Kurdish movement supported mainly by the Americans is considered more formidable than a Turkish presence in the north, which is helping to clean out the YPG. The Syrians appreciate the fact that the Turks are not in their country to acquire territory, as the Kurds are. I’m reasonably confident that they understand this. The Syrians initially came out publicly condemning the operation. They had no other choice – sovereignty being a key part of their public posturing. But apparently, the Russians were able to persuade them that the Turkish operation in Afrin was acceptable, even advantageous.
Then comes the next problem: which groups are the Turks supporting? Now, the Turks have backed a branch of the Free Syrian Army made up of mostly Arabs and Turkmens. This grouping doesn’t include Kurds. My hunch is that during an eventual peace process, it will probably be possible to negotiate some sort of arrangement whereby these ethnic groups are reintegrated into a reconstructed Syrian system and receive some sort of protection. The Syrian government is actually letting the Turks do something which they would have had to do themselves – get rid of the YPG.
The next problem concerns a negotiated settlement. I think here the Russians will play a very important role. They were accommodating to the Turkish intervention. We don’t know if, in return, Turkey made any promises regarding the way it would behave in the future. Most of us speculate that the Russians are acting as an informal channel of communication between Turkey and the Assad regime. Turkey has not yet officially dropped its argument that Assad should go but it’s not as vocal as it used to be. I would predict that, as Turkish forces move to clean out the YPG, there will be indirect communications and possibly negotiations to ensure that the Syria to emerge in the long run will not protect this group which would likely constitute a security challenge for Turkey.
►What about the EU and the US?
When we look at the European Union, their reaction is restrained. They recognize that Turkey is acting out of security interests. The European publics appear to have a romantic attachment to the Kurds. In the policy circles, however, I think there is a growing realism that such romanticism does not have a place in determining the geography of the region. If Turkey feels abandoned, it brings with it the possibility of Turkey breaking away from NATO which would produce much more earth-shaking outcomes.
The U.S., on the other hand, is a special case. It finds itself in a rather difficult position. It cannot totally abandon the YPG and accommodate the Turks as this would not only dent their reputation but would also lead them to forego their claims in the region and pull out. This is something they are not willing to do.
The Russians appear to pursue the goal of driving as big a wedge as possible between the U.S. and Turkey. For the Russians the survival of the Syrian regime with Assad at the helm is crucially important. In contrast, the Americans have stuck to a policy of regime change which is not a tenable position. So why are they insisting on it? If you ask an American diplomat, you might get a lecture on democracy and human rights but the fact is the U.S. cooperates with rather unruly regimes all over the world. In this particular case, their major concern seems to be that the Assad regime is highly reliant on the Russians and its continuation means that the Russians will get more deeply established in the region. n top of this, there is confusion within the U.S. administration. I’m not even sure that currently the U.S. has a clear-cut policy on Syria. It seems that under the rather inept leadership of Mr. Trump, who probably has little understanding of what’s going on, there are battles among various U.S. agencies, and I suspect within the agencies as well. The U.S Department of Defence, the State Department and the National Security Council all have their own lines of thinking and it seems they do not communicate much with each other. One makes a statement and then another comes out reinterpreting that statement in such a way that it is almost like negating the already made statement.
It seems the Trump administration is in a state of permanent transition. Not only did it fail to make all the appointments at the beginning of its term last year but some of the appointments that have been made have not been long-lasting. There is a constant process of appointments, resignations and reappointments. This is extremely problematic in emergency situations like Syria where you have to deal with the Americans but have difficulty understanding what they are saying and what they are committing themselves to. They are constantly shifting ground.
Lastly, we must note the remarkable absence of references to Iran in the current debate. The Iranians are not particularly interested in the fate of the Kurds. There is no benefit to be derived by Iran from the emergence of a Kurdish entity in north-
ern Iraq and northern Syria stretching out to the Mediterranean. The Iranians would like to have a strong Syrian regime that is favorably oriented to Iran; therefore, they are interested in the overall relationship. The Iranians were very much involved in fighting against the Islamic State and they were highly supportive of Assad because they find in him a man resisting America. The Iranian interest in Syria is broadly based rather than being focused on a particular border or group. If I were an Iranian policymaker, I would keep out of this ordeal because there is no benefit to be derived from it. Iran has been doing reasonably well in Iraq; it has been doing well in influencing Syria. There is no reason for it to get involved and undermine its relations with the Syrian Kurds. Furthermore, Turkey and Iran have both a complementary and a competitive relationship. If Turkey is occupied with the YPG, it may be that the Iranians will not be necessarily be unhappy.
►Could Turkey get tself nto trouble? Could t f nd tself solated?
When things go badly, there are only two things you can do: you escalate or you modify your goals and render them more modest. At the moment, there seems to be no indication that things are going badly so I would venture to say that Turkey will probably achieve its initial goals. Once you try to get control of a city like Afrin, of course, that is going to be more difficult than controlling the countryside. It will involve door to door urban warfare. Turkey already has some experience in that area as does the YPG, so it could be a very ugly fight.
►One of the key problems w th urban warfare s civilian casualt es. There are some unconf rmed reports that the YPG s prevent ng civilians from leav ng Afr n.
Yes, they want to use them as shields. Turkey using its previ- ously acquired experience will try to minimize civilian casualties. We don’t yet know the extent to which Turkish ground forces are involved in the intervention since the strategy has been to send in the Free Syrian Army and extend air, artillery and tank support to them. But then, it also seems that advance work was done by Turkish Special Forces.
►Let’s talk about Manb j and beyond. Pres dent Erdogan has stated very strongly that Turkey s go ng to w pe out all of the YPG, nclud ng n Manb j, where there are also U.S. forces present. The US has responded by say ng hey, cool down, keep this limted. Do you bel eve Turkey w ll gnore US warn ngs and go on to Manb j? And then what?
I think our president tends to express himself very powerfully but then he can also express himself very powerfully in the opposite direction. I don’t think his way of saying things should be interpreted as inflexibility on policy matters. Logic would dictate some kind of a negotiated arrangement in Manbij, which could include the U.S. asking the YPG to leave the city, a commitment the Americans made to Turkey some time ago. But this is a game of brinkmanship that’s being played by all. Even if the Americans eventually agree to leave Manbij, they cannot appear to be yielding immediately to Turkish pressure. I think some sort of an honorable way out will have to be devised.
►TAK – the most rad cal branch of the PKK - came out very qu ckly after the operat on began warn ng t was plann ng attacks n Turkey. Are they st ll capable of carry ng out s gn f cant attacks?
They should always be a cause of concern but Turkish intelligence has been quite successful in preventing domestic acts of terrorism. There is no foolproof system against urban terrorism but it’s not as if TAK is in a position to turn Turkey into a bloodbath.
►A lot of econom sts have pred cted that the Turk sh economy n 2018 should muddle through, unless there s some k nd of geopol t cal shock to the system, lead ng to cap tal fl ght and the fallout from that. Should Turkey be concerned?
I think that’s a reasonable concern but the way the Turkish government has been going about the intervention in Syria, and its policy in general, has been quite predictable. There is nothing unexpected or rash about the way Turkey has implemented its foreign policy. The intervention in Afrin was talked about for a long time. Attempts were made to bring people to the Turkish viewpoint and eventually Turkey intervened based on its stated goals. It has been careful not to get entangled in fights with the national forces of other countries, including Syria. I would be concerned, as others are, about unintended escalations, where you misjudge the reaction of the other side, the other side misjudges your reaction. Turkey has so far been careful not to expand the intervention in ways that would lead to a more comprehensive fight.