Turkish assault of northern Syria and adjoining territories

Published : 22 Oct 2019 06:01 PM | Updated : 06 Sep 2020 03:19 PM

The evol­ving situation on the Turkish- Syrian- Iraqi Kurdish border con­tinues to create anxiety not only in that region but also elsewhere- including the European Union and the United States domestic political arena.

When it started, we saw President Trump’s controversial comments about the Turkish offensive and also about the role of the Kurds. Attention was drawn to this paradigm because in recent history in matters related to Syria, the Kurds had proved to be Washington's closest and most effective partner in trying to control the chaos that provided ungoverned space for the expansion of the so-called caliphate of Islamic State (IS). This took place at a time when, according to the European media many Gulf Arab States allegedly pitched in with assistance to various rebel groupings in the hope of removing the Assad regime in Syria.

Washington had turned to the Kurds after various abortive attempts at arming and training local militias had failed in both Iraq and Syria.

Such a continuing move was however not taken lightly by Turkey. Their strategic interest was particularly focused on the fact that such reliance on the Kurds by the US was encouraging the separatist Kurdish movement in Turkey known as the Kurdistan Workers Party or the PKK.

It may be noted that this group has been waging a long-running campaign against the Turkish state and has been considered simply as terrorists. Across the border in Syria, another Kurdish group, also known as the YPG, was known to have links with the PKK in Turkey. It was significant that this group formed the core element of the mixed Kurdish and Arab militia that Washington decided to throw its weight behind. For Ankara these Kurdish groups were terrorists and thus Washington was effectively siding with enemies of the Turkish State.

Consequently, President Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from this region created its own dynamics for the Turkish government.

Nevertheless, this current episode raised questions about the future relationship between the US and Turkey, both members of the NATO. Responses of several countries within the European Union also underlined concern with what was being done by Turkey. It consequently became a major test of Turkey's whole relationship with the West.

As the situation deteriorated, the dynamics took a different course. First US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied that the US had given Turkey a "green light" for the offensive. Subsequently there was direct contact between Erdogan and Trump- with Trump suggesting that Turkey needed to re-think its couse of action. There was also the direct initiative where US Vice President Pence and Pompeo flew into Turkey to persuade Erdogan to agree to a cease-fire. Against this background there was also the warning that if Turkey did not concur to a cease-fire, it would lead to the US issuing sanctions against Turkish Ministries of Defence and Energy as well as on the Ministers of Defence, Energy and Interior. Influenced by growing criticism within the US Republican Party and also among the Democrats, Trump also warned Turkey that US sanctions would do terrible damage to the Turkish economy.

The evolving situation gained a different momentum with reports that the Kurds had reached a deal with the Syrian government and its army. The Kurds claimed that the Syrian government had agreed to send its army to the northern border to try to halt Turkey's offensive against the Kurds. Within hours of this revelation, such Syrian army movement was noticed in particular areas adjacent to the conflict zone.

These factors eventually led Turkey to agree to a ceasefire. For the moment, the situation is tense but there has been a slight easing of hostilities in the sub-region.

Such a step by Turkey appears to have also received the concurrence of Russia- the emerging friend of Turkey and also an ally of the Syrian Assad government.

Some, within the European media have already started pointing out that though member of the NATO, Turkey has been enhancing its military relations with Russia and this might have had an osmotic effect. As an example they are pointing out that Turkey’s recent purchase of advanced Russian air defence missiles had already led to their ejection from the US F-35 fighter programme.

It needs however to be noted that by 14 October Turkey had pushed quite deep into northern Syria. It is understood that Turkish forces now control about 150 sq km of territory, including 21 villages. The key border town of Ras al-Ain appears to have come under Turkish control. Similarly, Turkish forces appear to have also besieged the town of Tal Abyad, some 120km away. The UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has said that Turkey is now in almost complete control there. Both Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad are key goals in the Turkish offensive against the SDF. Turkey has also announced that its Syrian allies on the ground had seized a key motorway - called M4 - some 30-35km south of the border.

Before the cease – fire, statistics had revealed that casualty figures had been rising on both sides of the border. This included civilians. The UN humanitarian agency OCHA has said that up to 160,000 civilians are now on the move and it expects the number to rise despite the temporary halt in hostilities. It has also said that it is increasingly concerned about the safety of its staff in the region. Turkey on the other hand has tried to reassure the world by saying that it has undertaken the current assault- termed as “Operation Peace Spring” because it wants to create a "safe zone" reaching 30 km into Syria on the border for the millions of the Syrian refugees presently residing in Turkish territory.

The current fighting has however assumed different dimensions and that is proving to be a source of growing concern for security strategists from many countries. The fighting has apparently spilled over to areas close to IS detainee camps. The other aspect revolves round the fact that the offensive has been mounted at a time when the US-led effort to destroy the Daesh in Syria is winding down with the US keen to end its military involvement ahead of next year’s Presidential election.

The Kurds fighting the Turkish incursion are now pointing out that they, inview of their present predicament, are no longer able to ensure complete guarantee of guarding IS prisnors. This means that they might be able to escape and join their terrorist comrades- thereby allowing the Daesh to rebuild its strength.

Such fears on the part of the Kurdish forces have already started happening. Their fears that they will be unable to keep IS prisoners confined appear to have been realised when officials at the Ain Issa camp reported that nearly 800 relatives of foreign IS members had escaped from custody. It is also not known where they have gone. It may be added here that this camp still holds about 12,000 displaced people, including nearly 1,000 foreign women and children with jihadist links. It is understood that there are nearly 12,000 suspected IS members in seven prisons, and at least 4,000 of them are foreign nationals. Turkey, to defuse the crisis, has however observed that it will take responsibility for IS prisoners it finds during its offensive. In this regard Turkey will be relying also on Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army who have also been involved in the fighting.

It needs to be noted however that the deal between the SDF and the Syrian government represents a significant shift in alliances for the Kurds, after losing the military protection of their long-term US partners in the area. The SDF Chief Mazloum Abdi has expressed his anxiety about the deal with the Assad government and its Russian allies, in an article for Foreign Policy magazine but has also observed that "we do not trust their promises. To be honest, it is hard to know whom to trust. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people."

In this context it would be worthwhile to note US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s remark that the current decision for US to withdraw its nearly 1,000 troops away from the northern territory bordering Turkey was taken because the US Administration would not leave US forces stuck between "two opposing advancing armies". The SDF has however called the move "a stab in the back".

Nevertheless, one does not consider that the Turkish assault is likely to be over very soon. There will be ramifications that will emerge in their own time. All these aspects will also be monitored very carefully by the regional countries. Instability will rule the roost for the near future.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador and chief information  commissioner, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance .