Need a brief overview of the start of Operation Euphrates Shield? Check out the August 24 launch of combat operations here in Turkey Invades Syria: Operation Euphrates Shield
Northern Syria finds itself at the crossroads of multiple national and international actors. From Afrin to Manbij, The government in Ankara has long vowed to create a “safe zone”. The Turkish-backed militias of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), supported by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), have attempted to militarily control the area as leverage in future negotiations among the conflicting parties battling for dominance in Syria.
After the rebel loss in Aleppo, the Syrian army encirclement of Deir Hafer, and the steady takeover by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of villages once occupied by ISIS, Turkey has reason to worry its position vis-à-vis its southern neighbor, regional actors, and international superpowers will rapidly diminish.
Eyad Abu Shakra, the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, takes note in a March 12 essay, that Turkey’s efforts to shape the conflict in North Syria have not been without some success. The advancement from Jarbalus to al-Bab, while delayed, was nonetheless a de-facto occupation of Syrian national territory.
As developments unfolded, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies won over al-Bab. However, the second stage of Operation Euphrates Shield is far from accomplished, particularly amidst regional and international disarray.
Mr. Shakra does not mention that the Syrian government condemned the occupation of Syrian lands by Turkish military forces. He ignores this inconvenient fact and instead conveys an optimistic tone, believing that the gains recently achieved by Turkey are not the end of its military progress, but an initial phase that can be followed with more police actions if there is the will to exercise further pressure. As the latter sentence of the quote indicates, Mr. Shakra asserts that amidst regional and international disarray, Turkey can act military without suffering a heavy penalty.
The most hopeful outcome for Turkey is the least likely
A number of obstacles stand in the way of Turkey’s most hopeful outcome in Syria. The dream, where Turkey realizes its goals of defanging Syrian Kurdish militias and goes on to play the dominating regional actor at the table of future multi-party negotiations, is one of the least likely outcomes at this stage of the conflict. The conflict has persisted for 6 years, and the mechanics influencing the endgame in N. Syria are already in sight. The actors that staked out a position in the wars earliest stages and have continuously committed to promoting their allied parties along the way, despite the various setbacks such unpredictable struggles produce, will have the most influence over the future of Syria. Turkey, although it may try to infiltrate the Kurdish cantons, is unlikely to have much success without a high cost in casualties and disapproval from other powers.
Although the Syrian government is the main ally of the Russian government, there has been direct Russian support for the Kurds in the fight against ISIS as Moscow has increased its role in Middle Eastern affairs over the years, primarily through increasing arms exports. Recent reports from YPG spokesman reported in Reuters that Russia pledged to build military bases within Afrin at the behest of the Kurds in Western Syria may be false as the Russian Ministry of Defense has noted (or simply the Russians do not want this policy consideration discussed openly at this time), but it’s still clear Russia, while it would like to come to some agreement that avoids hostility with Turkey, is not interested in Ankara playing a greater role in the conflicts endgame or in seeing them occupy the Kurdish cantons. In fact, while relationships between the two are not as bad as they were after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015, they no longer seem to be on the mend if the sanctions Turkey employed against Russian wheat and agricultural products today are any indication.
Some actors, like the Gulf Arabs, steadily reduced their support for rebels as worries over hardline extremists arose in the international community. Many states that heavily supported terrorists formerly have reversed course after the accusation of support for Islamic terrorism began to make some headway. There was additionally a judgment that the rebels simply could not defeat the Syrian government, having carried so few major cities after years of fighting. The costs were high, the outcome unpredictable, and the payoff unclear. They will still try, undoubtedly, to influence the conflict outcome in other regions of Syria.
Turkey, while enthusiastically supportive of the rebellion, was the last of the international parties to put boots on the ground. The Kurdish path to either autonomy or independence gave Turkey an incentive to act that other anti-Assad parties in the region did not have. Like most of Turkey’s initiatives in Syria, it was too little too late and far out of step with what other actors were prepared to accept. Russia and Iran were on the ground first, and have no intention of loosening their grip in favor of a relative newcomer to Syria’s difficult terrain. Russia and Iran have been fortunate enough to have a relatively stable ally seated in Damascus, the nation’s capital. They have tried to avoid hostilities with Turkey in North Syria, but it is unclear this pattern would hold if Ankara attempted to make further gains.
The United States, a NATO ally, will be problematic for Turkey as well. The U.S. has issued conflicting statements concerning its support for the Syrian Kurdish militias operating in Northern Syria. The former-Vice President Joe Biden flew to Ankara at the start of Operation Euphrates Shield in order to prove American support, but also perhaps to avoid other actors from interfering in the illegal approach on Jarablus. A severe warning was issued to the Kurds. It was indicated by the former White House that the Kurdish position west of the Euphrates River would be impossible to support if Turkey wished to act against them.
However, the Trump administration has increased its own military footprint in Syria and presented the SDF as their main ally on the ground. The Trump administration has focused on a quick military defeat of ISIS. The SDF, while problematic because Raqqa is an Arab city and the SDF primarily a Kurdish force, are the closest militia on the ground to reaching the city. The Trump White House has signaled quite openly that they don’t intend for a skirmish between the Kurds and Turks west of the Euphrates river to break out and sully their plans for ISIS. In the Military Time article below, the U.S. presence in Manbij is boldly on display, many months after ISIS has long since been run out of the city.
The U.S. military has sent nearly 100 Army Rangers into the Syrian city of Manbij. But there is something highly unusual about this particular deployment.
The elite soldiers, who typically operate in the shadows, arrived in armored vehicles festooned in brightly colored American flags, a gesture designed to make their presence abundantly obvious. And unlike the other 15,000 U.S. troops on the ground in active war zones, the Americans in Manbij are not conducting “counter-terror” or “advise and assist” operations.
Rather, the Pentagon has quietly unveiled a new kind of mission: It’s called “reassurance and deterrence.”
It is difficult to determine what signals a new White House is attempting to relay, especially one that is still understaffed and that has made few noises that indicate what an acceptable outcome between the Turkish government and Syrian Kurds looks like. American soldiers, however, are not an indecisive statement. They are a clear message that hostilities between the two over Manbij will not be tolerated at this stage in the advance on Raqqa. This is to the disadvantage of Turkey, which as Mr. Shakra noted earlier, is relying on the chaos of the current conditions to advance an agenda in northern Syria. Some elements within the Turkish government are beginning to see that this is another miscalculation on their part. The Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik made claims, reported by Said Abdul Razzak, that are in support of Turkey brokering a diplomatic solution, instead of playing a military role in Manbij.
Finding a diplomatic solution with the United States and Russia on northern Syria’s Manbij has become a necessity, and a military approach would only be considered if diplomacy failed, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on Thursday.
What is curious about the statement is that it sets Russia and the U.S. as the main hostile actors vying with each other for Manbij. This is clearly not the case, and though both are concerned with the potential spillover effects the fight for the city may bring, the main forces vying for future control of Manbij militarily are the Syrian Kurds and the Turks, who wish to see a Kurdish departure from the city. The defense ministers statement may have been an attempt to avoid Turkey’s own desires on Manbij and focus the two superpowers on their own rivalry.
Chaos can be a conduit for a Turkish advance. A stable, incremental path towards the defeat of ISIS, in addition to the continued effort by the Syrian government to achieve ceasefires with rebel forces, will close off Turkey’s ability to influence the conflict. Syria’s native military actors in northeast Syria are choosing to cooperate, preventing Ankara from putting its most hopeful plans into action. The superpowers are aiding the Syrian government and SDF in the defeat of ISIS. Local forces in northern Syria will have the opportunity to directly shape the destiny of Syria because of these choices. The military effort required by Turkey to change the situation on the ground are simply unavailable at this stage of the war.
Whether they or other regional backers of the rebellion can open new fronts, perhaps from Idlib, where some key rebel forces continue to eye each other as warily as they do the government is a discussion for another article. The Syrian army attempted to maintain a holding pattern against rebel forces operating in West Syria as they launch their eastern offensives, but Al Qaeda and company have made bold new advances in North Hama recently and the Syrian army will be forced to prove once again it can launch multiple offensives while defending long-held territory.