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Turkey in Northern Syria

January 21, 2019

Turkey in Northern Syria

TURKEY IN NORTHERN SYRIA

 

Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and their proxies have occupied territory in Northern Syria since August 2016. Ankara had long been working on the idea of creating a “proto-state” out of the Euphrates Shield forces (which controls the Free Syrian Army). Turkey controls a territory of more than 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) in Northeastern Syria and holds sway over a quarter of Syria’s population either directly or indirectly (including more than 3.6 million refugees in Turkey, 600,000 people living in the Northern enclave of Syria controlled by Turkey, and some 2 million people living in Idlib where Turkey has a major influence). In Idlib, where Turkey has agreed to a buffer zone deal with Russia, the rising tide of the jihadists could not be stemmed. In fact, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is an alliance led by jihadists from Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, has recently extended its administrative control over the entire Idlib region. However, Turkey still officially denies that Idlib is becoming a jihadist stronghold.

 

Ankara’s aim has been to professionalize its rebel allies in a bid to bring more stability to the region and have a greater say in the future of Syria. However, one of the inherent weaknesses of Turkey in Northern Syria is the fact that it has been unable to retain unity amongst various rebel factions. In March 2018, a new security force was formed to provide security in the region, given that the 22000 member strong National Army comprised of 30 different factions of the Free Syrian Army has been unable to provide a coherent security structure as each faction had its own security institution. Ankara even helped coordinate a meeting between 33 rebel groups in the Euphrates Shield region so that they unite their factions into three army corps before becoming a national army. However, the efforts have largely not paid off.

Given the largely disparate command structures of various factions, Ankara has opted to slowly push for the integration of these groups, and as such, it renders its support and instructions to each group in a separate way while keeping them financially dependent on Turkey.

 

American Decision to Withdraw Troops from Syria

On January 19th, President Trump abruptly announced that the US would withdraw all of its 2200 troops from Syria within 30 days, on the grounds that ISIS had been defeated and there was no other need for the US troops to continue being stationed in Northern Syria.

While the decision was welcomed by Turkey, which had long considered the presence of the Kurdish PYD a threat to its national security, it also led to a shock amongst the allies of the US. Seemingly in the face of such reactions, at the beginning of January, Trump told reporters: “We’re going to be removing our troops. I never said we were doing it that quickly. We’re pulling out of Syria…and we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone”, creating further ambiguity about the timeline of US withdrawals.

 

Moreover, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, said he would seek Turkish assurances that the Kurds in Northern Syria would be safe. However, these remarks infuriated Erdogan, who reacted by saying that the American demands to protect the Kurds were “unacceptable”. Especially in Manbij, given the possible American withdrawal, there’s a likelihood that the Syrian forces close to Assad could fill the void, an action vociferously condemned by Turkey as Ankara has amassed troops on the other side of the border to ready annex the area.

 

The Idea of a Safe Zone in Northern Syria

Although Turkey had long suggested the establishment of safe zones (de-escalation zones) in Northern Syria to counter the advances made by the Kurds, the idea had not received approval neither from Russia nor from Turkey’s Western allies. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his plans to create a safe zone of more than 20 miles wide in Northeast Syria. The Turkish request received affirmative response from Trump, as he tweeted about having talked to Erdogan about these safe zones.

Yet, there are a lot of opaque points about what the proposed safe zone could involve. Most importantly, while Washington remains sensitive to protecting the Kurds and eradicating the last remnants of the ISIS, Ankara still considers the PYD a terrorist organization due to its links to the PKK. Meanwhile, the PYD and its allies have been holding talks with the Syrian government and Russia in hopes of getting them to protect Kurdish-held areas against a possible Turkish attack.

As tensions rise in Northern Syria, the next few months are likely to create greater uncertainty about the region’s future. While Turkey has been unable to curb the rise of the jihadist HST in Idlib, its seeming focus on the eradication of PYD is set to further deteriorate its relations with its Western allies. Against this backdrop, the timeline of American withdrawal from Northern Syria is also likely to remain uncertain, further complicating Turkish plans to enter the area. Another determining factor is Russia’s reaction to proposed safe zones. While Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Russia would consider Turkey’s demands for a safe zone, he went on to say “we are convinced that the best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures”.

If Turkey opts to encourage the Kurdish population to conclude a deal with the Syrian government, it might have achieved two objectives: reestablishing Syrian authority in Northern Syria that is likewise opposed to Kurdish independence, re-integrating the Kurdish population within the Syrian polity.

 

Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic